Thursday, September 24, 2009

1999-2004 - Royal City (Autumn 2009)


Royal City
Asthmatic Kitty Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 8/10
SCQ Rating: 79%

The hazards of B-side compilations are known and revered like almighty tablets of truth; discount these fair warnings and risk feeling ripped off. Such releases are commonly (I.) excused as label cash-ins, (II.) composed of experiments gone awry or rough ideas abandoned and (III.) destined for completists and die-hard fans only. Having obeyed these tablets of truth faithfully throughout the years, I admit my approach to 1999-2004, the posthumous rarities compilation by Royal City, was guarded by a few preconceptions.

And yet I couldn’t ignore the tizzy this release was causing from the band’s hometown of Guelph, Ontario, through their adopted city of Toronto. Magazines and bloggers alike were issuing exclamation-mark riddled statements of “FINALLY” while a collective of well-known Canadian artists recently held a concert-vigil consisting exclusively of Royal City covers. So why all the commotion about a B-sides album? Are the band members reuniting? Is this some mythological album recklessly buried or shelved by a disputing label? No, none of the above. These are last remnants… the odds and sods of a band five years dead, tied lovingly into a hardback package courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty. Its spine smells of suffocated library books, its title reads as an epitaph, graceful but unadorned. That this collection of scraps has been feasted upon so ravenously by press and fans should suggest Royal City were underappreciated during their tenure, and in these twelve songs, Asthmatic Kitty makes a solid bid to multiply the band’s devotees.

As if sequenced to be a revelation, 1999-2004 kicks off with a full-blooded take on Iggy Pop’s ‘Here Comes Success’, matching their knack for folk-rock dynamics with vocalist Aaron Riches’ punk roots. With ‘A Belly Was Made For Wine’ and ‘The Nations Will Sing’, the record settles into mid-tempo rarities that are as welcoming as they are slapdash, sounding impressively live off the floor. Yet the heart of this record recedes from sporadically sunny harmonies, choosing to dwell predominantly in moodier arrangements that reveal Royal City’s true gifts.

Make no mistake, 1999-2004 is a ceiling-watching, wine-drinking assault on one’s fleeting sense of nostalgia. You can feel the supple descent of guitars squeeze your heart as ‘Postcards’ finds Riches refusing all pictures and postcards, both being needless reminders that he’s “blue”. It’s a rain-soaked testimonial to little moments spent alone, an intimacy revisited in the acoustic ‘I Called But You Were Sleeping’ and again in ‘O You With Your Skirt’; a song of such bittersweet memory, its piano-accompanied chorus and wailing harmonica warrant its consideration as one of the year’s best songs… written eight years ago. And speaking of nostalgia, their take on The Strokes’ ‘Is This It?’ is a banjo-led lament, tempered and dreamy in its simplicity.

Of course, such a release occasionally admits its B-side status, digging out a few audible throwaways like the four-track recorded ‘Can’t You Hear Me Calling’ or the endearing ‘Dog Song’; the former merely breathing into harmonica, the latter floating on field-recordings and static. Yet these sketches lend their vulnerable acoustics well to this collection’s autumnal vibe, achieving a cathartic but unconscious rite of passage.

Some of Royal City’s aforementioned die-hards might think I’m a poor advocate for this release, having wandered into the band’s epilogue after missing their story (as well as their three much-loved albums). Yet 1999-2004 is no common compilation, feeling as varied and vital as a new album and, in the process, completely derailing my guarded misconceptions. Yet for those either as new to Royal City as myself or haunted by the hazards of B-sides, be not afraid. 2009 might be Royal City’s most successful year yet.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)

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