You’ve got a prominent website like Ominocity, which does such a splendid job promoting music and art from Saskatoon and all surrounding areas, but what do you do when one of the site’s co-founders just happens to be in a band that’s just put out a record that’s likely going to be the most talked-about piece of music from this city in 2015? Such conflicts of interest happen all the time these days, as so often musicians also dabble in writing, promotion, management, and who knows what else in the music scene. After all, the days of making a living as a musician and a freelance writer are all but over. You have to multitask.
The first thing you do in this situation is offer full disclosure. Yes, dear reader, Ominocity co-boss Chris Morin is a member of Slow Down, Molasses, who have just released their third album Burnt Black Cars. However, that’s where I come in. I’ve known several members of the band for years, but as a music writer whose work requires a more international scope, I’m not as embedded in the local scene as I would be if I worked for a local paper. Also, to be frank, I was one of the only people in this city who was down on the 2011 album Walk Into the Sea. I believe the word “milquetoast” was the word I used to describe it not long after it came out, which singer/guitarist Tyson McShane playfully teased me about a year later. So because I don’t pen for a local rag and am too old to have gone to school with any of these bands, it affords me the luxury of objectivity when it comes to Saskatoon-bred talent. I don’t have to be a cheerleader, and if a band makes awful music – um, One Bad Son, Reignwolf – I will not hesitate to say they make awful music. I’m hard to please, which every music critic should be.
The thing with Slow Down, Molasses, though, is that they didn’t particularly make bad music; it just didn’t feel as though it reflected their true potential as a band. In the last four years especially they’ve metamorphosed into a marvelous live act: energetic, hooky, ebullient, and considering the rate at which the members swap instruments, remarkably tight. Every time you saw them, they got better and better, and the more new music they performed, the closer it felt as though the band was inching ever closer to its true collective self. An identity was taking form before scenesters’ very eyes and ears, and that’s all coalesced on Burnt Black Cars, a marvelous collection of nine songs that burst with melodies, noise, drones, progressive elements, and dance-inducing grooves. It’s indie rock that arrives at a time when most indie rock bands have either forgotten, or have no idea how, to actually rock.
Recorded at Saskatoon’s Avenue Recording with Jordan Smith, the key ingredient on Burnt Black Cars is the addition of Jace Lasek, who handled the mixing. Lasek, the leader of stalwart Canadian noise rockers The Besnard Lakes, not only is a phenomenal technician, but knows how to create that perfect balance of melody and atonality, and his strong emphasis on that element is crucial on this record. In the tradition of Sonic Youth, Slowdive, and Swervedriver, distortion and effects are cranked up on the guitars. Drone, be it feedback or keyboard, constantly underscores melodies. Vocals are drenched in reverb, often just enough to render them barely intelligible. It’s less a set-in-stone statement than a reverie, and in the band’s case, musing on the stunning photographs of the Paris ’68 riots taken by McShane’s father, which form a vivid visual companion to the album. Yet at the same time, sonically those extremes – consonance and dissonance – richly reflect the extremes of Saskatchewan, where it’s either 30 degrees below, or 30 degrees above.
That’s where their mind is, but the music is amorphous enough for the listener to interpret it all however they seem fit. Standout tracks like the hazy “Summer Sun”, the roaring “Don’t Forget the Youth”, and the wistful “Home” hearken back wonderfully to the days of Daydream Nation, McShane’s detached vocal phrasing and intonations taking on a Thurston Moore quality. Jeanette Stewart ditches the jeans and boots for a sundress on the gorgeous “Stay Still”, her dulcet singing a perfect foil to McShane, her Rachel Goswell to his Neil Halstead. Stewart and Morin, meanwhile, offer a sweet duet on “City Sublet” that contrasts with his portrait of urban bleakness. The most revelatory moment, though, is on the title track, which starts of with a slow, Broken Social Scene-derived dirge – oh, here we go, I thought cynically upon first listen – but two minutes in launches into a wonderful, raucous motorik jam that you wish could go on for ten minutes longer, or even more.
That innocuous turning point on “Burnt Black Cars” is a glorious, dynamic moment that sets the stage for the rest of what becomes an extraordinary little album that not only shows how much Slow Down, Molasses have come into their own, but accurately reflects just how vibrant and flourishing Saskatoon’s woefully underrated – and on a national scale, underreported – music scene has become. Their heads might be in Paris on this record, but their hearts are on the Prairies, and therein lies its great, effervescent, noisy charm.