Monday, June 13, 2011

Into the Hills - Racoon Bandit

Into the Hills

Racoon Bandit
Collagen Rock Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

In terms of Canadian rock – that being rock music that, for one reason or another, hasn’t a hope in hell of catching fire south of the Canada/USA border – Sam Roberts and his PR army have perhaps the ideal footing. It seems as though every other summer begins with a new Sam Roberts record; one obsessed with mining that elusive summer hit for seasonal retreats and get-togethers, each bearing but a fraction of the shadow that has receded album by album. The Tragically Hip steadily declined along the same predictable template. But that’s the tradeoff when it comes to major labels; you achieve a new audience but one that recognizes art as commerce, one that prefers comforts (like, say, knowing their fave artist will release something new every other spring) over surprises. Thus, Sam Roberts becomes property of corporate rock hangouts – the stagnant classic rock stations and primetime peaks of the CBC – which filter his creative muse down to a rigid calendar of expectations. Keep in mind that all of this has happened well in advance of Fucked Up launching a “pop-up” record store at an art gallery last week, from midnight to 4am, to celebrate their new album. I can’t see many major label execs putting their necks out for an idea like that; and so their bloodletting continues.

Independent music fans show a sense of commitment that enables Fucked Up and their DIY colleagues’ cleverness, but they also rally around young bands with big hearts. What got me ranting in the first place – this Canadian rock sound – well, I can’t pinpoint what causes it. The Deep Dark Woods, Grey Kingdom, and Cuff the Duke have that sound. Racoon Bandit has it too, a jovial but sedate mood and rustic musicianship that reflects landscapes we Canadians know in our mind’s eye. No differently than how Sam Roberts tries to corner the Summer-Jam market, In the Hills tests its functionality as an easy-going drinking album. That is what summer’s for, right?

Anyway I’d pick Racoon Bandit’s full-length over Roberts’ Collider any season, in part because the Charlottetown-based quintet knows their station. Opening with the tender but throbbing couplet of ‘Wooly Toque’ and ‘Steel Rail’, Racoon Bandit show a knack for warm folk-rock arrangements that hide an anthemic bite; something that goes smoothly next to daydreamed campfires and docks at sunset. Full band workouts on the Americana-tinged ‘I’m On Fire’ and the creeping beauty of ‘Hard Drive’ reach for new pastures but the warm production begins to sedate as we cross onto In the Hills’ second side. ‘Katie Cruel’ and ‘Fix It’, the record’s obvious black-hole, briefly loses the plot, choosing instrumentally compelling ways of standing still when Racoon Bandit’s chief allure is momentum. It’s what draws the band reasonable comparisons to Arcade Fire and results in some of their best tunes (‘Silver Bullet', ‘Get Off’).

The lyrics, mood and scope of In the Hills hugs at the nature of being Canadian and I’ve no doubt Canadians will be hugging this record back. Despite a lax second half, In the Hills shows enough promise to secure some indie-appropriate loyalties and, with any luck, some exposure south of the border.

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