Montreal-based six-piece The Dears have been making music for over a decade, releasing two orchestral indie albums upon an indifferent world along the way. If you’ve never heard of them before, third opus Gang Of Losers states clearly that you’ve missed out. Here is a record that, despite lacking in immediacy, proves to be a cut above if given more than a solitary spin.
Described as a “stripped down” record relative to The Dears’ previous outings, the fulsome soup-and-cymbals ’70s prog rock mix – a characteristic The Dears share with Bella Union labelmates Midlake – showcases front man Murray Lighburn’s voice. Somehow, despite being Canadian, he manages throughout to sound startlingly like Damon Albarn – judge for yourself if that’s a good thing – and backing vocal harmonies on tracks like single Ticket To Immortality only emphasise the ground The Dears share with Blur.
Vocals aside, this is a record of instrumental invention that suggests the band are as interested in the texture of sounds as the phrasing of songs or the rhyming of lyrics. Death Or Life We Want You marries spiky Graham Coxon-like guitar hooks to robot-like synth vocals, a perfect marriage of organic and mechanical. Sparse use of sax, synth and inventive ways to play guitar provide a rich canvas. Stripped down it may be, but there’s plenty going on in each of the tracks to merit repeat listens.
There are points when it’s possible to believe that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, aided and abetted by the Daleks, invaded The Dears’ studio with all manner of Dr Who type gizmos, only for the band’s fundamentally organic arrangements to win the day with tracks like There Goes My Outfit, an obvious second single that adds piano to a reverb-laden guitar backing.
Fear Made The World Go Round is another slice of nostalgic rock, part Velvet Underground tribute, with a nod to Portishead in its early stages before progging out like there’s no tomorrow with guitars so obviously influenced by Brian May it causes involuntary smiling. There are several such moments here.
Spangly background analogue synth arpeggiations fill in the gaps in the wall of sound left blank by piano, guitar, drums and vocals in the gloriously inventive You And I Are A Gang Of Losers. Lyrically it clarion calls to outsiders everywhere without descending into literary pretention, preferring the words to resonate rather than bewilder. It’s also their most Midlake-alike moment.
It’s not by any means a bygone era wallowfest, for in amongst the ’70s-checking arrangements are unexpected thigh-slapping moments too. Whites Only Party feels like a hickbilly shamble, part early REM and part The Smiths but with a fuller sound than either. Lightburn’s engaged vocals confidently hold the whirling synths and guitars together, but he’s less the eye of a hurricane than the tree in the path of a mild breeze. Just when it couldn’t get any more varied, Ballad Of Humankindness introduces ancient analogue drum patterns under the now familiar antique synth, but then morphs into real drums, guitars, tambourines and what just about manages to become a different song. For sure, if it’s three minute anthems you’re looking for you won’t find them here.
All this is suggestive of a record that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but one that has been an age in development. Even if written speedily, the band have palpably taken their time over the eventual finished sound. Closing track Find Our Way To Freedom features everything from sax refrain to a capella bass vocal drones. A more varied palette of instrumentation on an indie album is, surely, a struggle to find – even self-styled avant garde Londoners Guillemots pale by comparison. It is this care that makes Gang Of Losers feel less “just a record” and closer to “work of art”.
So if you’ve ever wondered what Blur would sound like if they were a ’70s rock act with hippie tendencies locked in a studio until they exhausted every musical arrangement possible, Gang Of Losers stands as your chance to find out.