A NORTHERN CHORUS with BENEATH AUGUSTA and ALIGHT at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Saturday (June 25). $7. 416-532-1598.
Although you might be led astray by some of their more esoteric features, A Northern Chorus want you to know they're not a political band.
Yeah, they hail from the lefty union haven of Hamilton, and they're a sprawling collective whose members keep changing. And even Gramsci would get a boner from one of the songs on their new Bitter Hands Resign (Sonic Unyon) disc, which boasts lyrics about "prisoners of circumstance" who'll "get out alive" if they fight and "arm their minds." But the string-drenched dream pop crew insist they don't do politics.
Apparently, Thunder Bay hasn't been listening.
"I guess there's a whole political underground there, with people growing up in communes and stuff," laughs founder and vocalist/guitarist Pete Hall, who's drinking coffee in his Hamilton pad on a Saturday afternoon. When we played Thunder Bay, we had people coming up to us after the show saying, 'Wow, you guys are super-political.' Weird, huh?
"Most of the lyrics on this album are more of a conceptual thing. There's a lot about self-motivation, stuff about avoiding mediocrity. The general theme is not letting yourself conform."
So Prisoners Of Circumstance isn't about, like, smashing the state, crashing hegemonic parties and the revolt of the proletariat?
"Nah, it's about escaping from a job or a relationship or a position in your life you don't like."
Kidding aside, Bitter Hands Resign is a very pretty album that tempers the epic, crashing dynamics of emo-pop with gorgeous tidal waves of cello, fuzzed-out shoegazer guitars and lots and lots of multi-part harmonies.
With songs that clock in at six to seven minutes on average, the whole thing has a lulling, soothing vibe, kinda like those nature sounds meditation tapes with ocean noises, except that it's very well arranged and totally not annoying and New Agey.
The new album seems to be clicking with people in a way that the five-year-old outfits' earlier albums didn't quite achieve. It's already snagged A Northern Chorus some particularly good buzz in places as far away as Washington, where a rabid fan/reporter gave them a lovely plug.
That might be due to the fact that the current set-up - which includes newish addition Alex McMaster on cello - has great chemistry, which comes through in the album's arrangements. Unlike too many shoegazey rock discs, the string sections sound like an integral part of the tracks and not schmaltzy window dressing.
This Saturday's show ups the ante by bringing back original violinist Erin Aurich and organist Graham Walsh for guest appearances.
Although Hall acknowledges that their last disc, 2003's poppier Spirit Flags, laid the groundwork with shorter songs that were more appropriate for college radio play, the band has returned to longer tracks.
"The last record was our first time going into a professional studio, and (co-founder) Stu Livingstone and I had been without a band for so long that we'd built up tons and tons of songs. We think that album had too many tracks, and wanted to make sure we were 100 per cent proud of this record.
"The only downside," he adds sheepishly, "is that seven-minute songs don't work so well on the radio. On Spirit Flags some of the songs were a little bit poppier, and one of them, Red Carpet Blues, did quite well on the college charts. Whenever we get our SOCAN cheques, most of the money comes from that one song."
Still, one track from Bitter Hands Resign might have the potential to become a cult campus indie rock hit. A bit darker and more gothic than the bulk of the disc, album closer Winterize also trades the band's characteristic abstract conceptual narratives for lyrics written from the perspective of a real-life character.
"Stu actually wrote that song about Elliott Smith," explains Hall. "He wrote it wondering, 'What would Elliott Smith be thinking about his own suicide?' He even took some lines from Elliott's songs - the song ends with a mention of the governor's ball."
"Yeah, Stu kept wondering what Elliott'd say about his own death."