ROYAL CITY with DEEP DARK uNITED, THE HIDDEN CAMERAS and SUfJAN STEPHENS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (December 14). $9. 416-532-1598.
aaron riches is struggling toexplain the tremendous leap between Royal City's charming At Rush Hour The Cars debut and the group's remarkable new Alone At The Microphone disc.Hunched over midday pints of Guinness after a daylong drive home from Texas, the normally unstoppable Guelph singer/songwriter, who was once a character in a Robert Munsch children's book (he's the Aaron in Aaron's Hair), is at an uncharacteristic loss for words.
In the 16 months since At Rush Hour The Cars appeared, Royal City -- featuring Riches and instrument-trading pals Jim Guthrie, Nathan Lawr and Simon Osborne -- have turned heads from Whitehorse to Nashville opening for Sarah Harmer and playing house parties.
The quartet play a kind of cracked country that creaks along like a slightly more coherent Giant Sand, with songs full of painful shudders, false starts, eerie echoes and unsettlingly beautiful moments of reflection.
While the frail folk/pop on At Rush Hour The Cars was as elliptical as the album's hand-drawn cover art, Alone At The Microphone fills in the lines. It's a massive step forward.
Riches, however, is having trouble pinning down the progression. So, as he's wont to do, he tells a story.
"Our sound is very fluid," he smiles. "We can play a show and use someone else's equipment quite happily. We were once booked to play a show in Northampton, Massachusetts, and didn't get our instruments through the border, so we went anyway.
"We borrowed guitars and stuff, but there were no drums, so Nathan grabbed Tupperware containers, pots, a trash can and a chair turned backwards, and it was one of the best shows we've ever fucking played. We're quite adaptable at the best of times, and other times we'll just flounder happily."
That ragged instability is a major part of the Royal City charm.
Alone At The Microphone begins with a lurching drumbeat and a melody that, only 15 seconds in, sounds like it's going to collapse but then finds its legs and staggers forward. At the other end of the scale is a tune like Dank Is The Air Of Death And Loathing, a jazzy, almost whispered pop song that's a good deal prettier than its grim title.
While much of the frailty of At Rush Hour is gone, many of the 13 songs here are still marked by a volatile unpredictability, and the album is almost a mirror of Royal City's live shows, not so much in terms of the material, but in the style and approach.
Recorded with rising London, Ontario, producer Andy Magoffin at his House of Miracles studio after abandoning almost an album's worth of road-tested songs for new material, the disc has the casual feel of a group of people sitting around in a circle playing songs.
"That's how it was recorded," Riches confirms. "A lot of the songs weren't fleshed out. That's the nice thing about doing songs that haven't been driven into the ground on the road. You can capture that mystery of when the song's just starting to form around the edges.
"We wanted the record to come out a little crooked and terrible, and we were playing these songs hoping that we'd get through them before they collapsed.
"We're also a band now," he adds. "We weren't a band when we made the first record. At Rush Hour is a record about the making of a band. This record is the band making a record. Maybe the next one will be the breaking up of the band."
The emphasis on the group is crucial. The progress toward Alone At The Microphone mirrors Riches' progression from drummer in the punk band Minnow to solo singer/songwriter to frontman of a band called Aaron Riches and Royal City that's now simply known as Royal City.
All four members of the group are from Guelph and have known each other for years, and after almost constant touring the foursome have become incredibly close.
"I live with Nathan and Jim. Simon moved to Guelph when he was in grade seven, and he and Jim have been best buddies since grade nine," Riches laughs. "We all come from Guelph and we have this same frame of reference. We're a family in a kind of way.
"How could we do it any other way? We don't get fucking paid for any of these shows. We're playing a bunch of songs about Moses and feces. Who else would play this stuff for eight people in Baltimore, then do a 12-hour drive the next day and survive on lime Tostitos? You can't do that with hired help."
Riches isn't joking about the subject matter. There's a surreal sense of darkness creeping through the entire record. Seemingly quaint pop songs are riddled with references to maggots, death and an impending sense of terrible doom that's almost biblical in its sweep.
Given the current state of world affairs, the grim mood is eerily appropriate. Riches agrees, suddenly launching into an incredible, unbroken 20-minute detour across the Old Testament, the current war, the trouble with contemporary liberalism and why "Jesus isn't really so scary." The wild-eyed singer ends by ecstatically quoting from King Lear, while the couple at the next table look on with fascination and horror. Not exactly your average transparent doom and gloom, then.
"The record starts with a pagan utterance of bad luck and it ends with Miriam's utterance," Riches enthuses. "Of course, it's from the Bible, but that patch from Moses to Miriam is incredible. It could all be bullshit, but I think it has something to do with how the record flows. It's dark, but it's also uplifting.
"I think we live in pagan times, and this record is a journey from paganism to some kind of affirmation and thanksgiving.
"We went to Whitehorse and watched the northern lights. We went to Nashville, got drunk and fell down. We went to both oceans in the last year and we played in a school for kids. It was just the four of us, over and over again.
"Alone At The Microphone is the utterance of the four of us," he smiles. "It's a wander through the wilderness."