Now More Than Ever
never understood the critical love for Toronto’s Royal City and I doubt I ever will. Two times I’ve sat through their opening sets and the only positive thing I could possibly say is that it made the headliners sound downright angelic and calculated in comparison (considering one of those acts was Arab Strap, you get the point). You know that feeling when you’re so bored your eyes start to tear up? That’s about as close as they come to tugging emotional heart-strings. But this isn’t a review of Royal City and Guthrie shouldn’t be overshadowed by the amateurish band he just happens to be a part of.
Jim Guthrie has been releasing solo records on his own label (Three Gut, which apparently originates from a childhood nickname) for the past three years and has made one thing extremely clear in the process: his creative ambition as a solo artist is about as close to Royal City as Jim O’Rourke’s is to Wilco and their unique brand of dad-rock. Whereas Royal City’s principal songwriter Aaron Riches runs the band in all its one-geared “glory,” Guthrie constantly strives for the most startling and absurd ways of presenting his timeless pop hooks.
The Guelph, Ontario native’s sophomore album, Morning Noon Night, was released earlier this year to an audience that was as confused as they were entertained; primarily pieced together using Playstation’s MTV Music Generator and consisting of carefully constructed melodies surrounded by the game’s clichéd presets, the record was certainly promising (especially due to the stunning closer, “1901”), but frustrating in its need to belie the matured songwriting with its extreme gimmickry.
For his third full length, Now More Than Ever, Guthrie re-convened with a full band, this time including members of the Hidden Cameras (Mike Olsen on cello and Owen Pallett on the violin), the Constantines (Bry Webb plays banjo), Rockets Red Glare (drummer Evan Clarke) and, as to be expected, Royal City (bassist Simon Osbourne).
Frankly, the results are incredible. The album is full of intricately arranged lush, orchestrated pop that manages to steer clear of the detrimental cheese that has jumped on that description like hipsters on ironic trucker caps. From opener “All Gone” to the brief closer “You Are Far,” Guthrie is as relentless as his brand of pensive balladry can be without losing its slightly awkward charm. At times it can be compared to Sufjan Steven’s excellent Michigan (who also worked as an engineer on Royal City’s abysmal Alone at the Microphone), as the array of instrumentation (from the basic acoustic guitar backing to layers of chimes, bells, whistles and strings) makes his clever songwriting and lyrical smarts even more involving. Whereas Morning Noon Night was the sound of Guthrie exploring his talent, Now More Than Ever is the sound of him finding and exploiting his greatest strengths, surrounded by a production that is far more suitable and, thankfully, far less gimmicky.
Specific highlights include the wonderful “Time’s a Force” (which, like several other tracks sounds like it was co-written by John Vanderslice), the impeccable arrangements on “Problem With Solutions” and “Broken Chair,” the absolutely infectious hook that propels “Lovers Do,” the television theme charm of the instrumental title track (not surprising from Guthrie, who does a fair amount of soundtrack work, though almost all of it is so low-key we’ll never have the pleasure of hearing it) and the Hawaiian tinge of “You Are Far,” which gives the record a lovely conclusion, bringing his charmingly obtuse lyrics (“Ignorance is said to be bliss/ Can I still ask/ Do you exist?”) to the forefront.
This isn’t just one of the best Canadian indie pop records of the year, it’s one of the best indie pop rock records of the year period. Jim is just one in an array of Canadian artists hitting their creative stride in 2003 and considering both the promise of Now More Than Ever and Guthrie’s prolificacy, the next few years should bring him the attention his music increasingly demands. Just don’t hold Royal City against the man; consider this a peace offering, and a quirkily brilliant one at that.
Reviewed by: Scott Reid
Reviewed on: 2003-12-12