Secret City Records
If I was to do a seventh grade report on the country of Canada, I would, of course, craft a rousing five paragraph essay (complete with a three-pronged thesis statement). Here’s a quick draft outline:
A. Intro. Be sure to use phrase “friendly neighbors to the north” and joke with “eh” in it.
B. History of Canada (Canada is derived from the Iroquoian word “kanata,” meaning “village.”)
C. Geography and Climate (annual rainfall—60.33cm)
D. Economy (Chief exports—industrial machinery, telecommunications equipment, wood pulp, aluminum, Celine Dion, indie rock bands—talk about New Pornographers. No. Lead to lecture about dangers of pornography. Use Feist and Arcade Fire.)
E. Conclusion (Squeeze in references to Canadian Mounties, Maple Leaf, refer back to “friendly neighbors to the north.”)
Like most of my middle school reports, I'd probably get my paper back with a big red “C+,” and, in all caps and underlined, “See me.” Not everyone agrees with me about the abundant natural reserves located in Canadian indie music and its impact on the world economy—not even hypothetical teachers. But still, our friendly neighbors to the north send us some pretty good music.
Oddly enough, though, the band Patrick Watson—a foursome band comprised of Patrick Watson, Simon Angell, Robbie Kuster, Mishka Stein—is a Canadian resource that we Americans have yet to import. The quartet’s previous release, Close to Paradise, beat out Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Feist's The Reminder for the 2007 Polaris Music Prize, which honors the best Canadian album based solely on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales or record label.
Despite this accolade, the lush melodies of Close to Paradise that gently float between chamber pop, ambient electronica, and folk went largely unnoticed in the States. This oversight is bizarre considering the recent rise of pop orchestral acts that eschew genres like Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens. Of course, the group’s frontman Patrick Watson did not employ catchy whistling choruses, nor did he vow to create an album based on Canada's ten provinces and three territories on Close to Paradise. But maybe he'll catch our attention on Wooden Arms, which he calls “a science-fiction folk record.”
To fully appreciate the meandering sci-fi themes of Wooden Arms, it is best to follow the group’s lead in its ode to the children's picture book Where the Wild Things Are: “Put your wolf suit on” and escape into the night through silhouetted trees to make music with monsters of every kind, every genre. “For life is a heavy song,” and each song leads you further into the forest, into Wooden Arms, where you meet peculiar musical beasts along the way.
At times, the swelling string sections in the songs “Tracy Water's” and the banjo-pickin', hand-clappin' “Big Bird in a Small Cage,” evoke the intricate compositions of Andrew Bird, even if Watson doesn't suffer from the same sesquipedalian ailments. Following along the path, the muted horns and the slow, dirty guitar riffs of songs like “Traveling Salesman” and “Wooden Arms” recall the seedy cabarets of Tom Waits' imagination—though Watson seems to hush his voice in fear of sounding too much like Waits' rough, garbled utterances. Further still, the album changes direction when you hear the simple, sweet melody of “A Man Like You,” which sounds like it could be sung by Jeff Buckley.
While Wooden Arms often verges on sounding like a maddening pastiche, it primarily postures different styles and sounds side by side, so they swirl, then coalesce into a cohesive whole. The song “Beijing,” is a wonderful microcosm for the entire album, in which we hear “the sounds of the city,” found sounds, like a bicycle wheel, layered atop of a pulsing piano. It's almost as if there is a kid running home from school stomping his feet, dragging a stick across a chain-linked fence, striking every garbage can, stop sign and mail box, in a euphoniously rhythmic way.
Conversely, though Patrick Watson gracefully flits from genre to genre, seemingly gleaning wisdom from its musical forbearers, the band's unique sound and ultimately the potentiality of Wooden Arms never come to fruition. It might be like listening to music on an iPod with that aforementioned kid, who probably has ADD: As soon as you start to enjoy a song—whether two minutes or thirty seconds in—he selects a different song in an entirely different genre. Regardless of its shortcomings, I think Wooden Arms is worth importing to the United States, but don’t expect it to save Canada’s GDP.
Bill Orton is the music editor for Wunderkammer.