Another sprawling, indie-folk band from the vast open spaces of Canada, Calgary’s Woodpigeon have emerged blinking into the sunlight to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and the New Pornographers in their attempt to translate cult status in their homeland into a viable international career.
Led by singer-songwriter Mark Hamilton, the other members of Woodpigeon include Kenna Burima, Annalea Sordi, Aimee-Jo Benoit, Daren Powell, Peter Moersch, Michael Gratton and Foon Yap. Their indie credentials are set in stone just by a cursory read of the instrumental credits, which include keyboards, horns, mellotron, glockenspiel, and violin. The formidable line-up is also frequently augmented on stage, and you do have to wonder sometimes how they manage to fit into a single room.
A quick perusal of the wordy song titles on Songbook will have the average indie kid silently muttering the name Sufjan Stevens to him/herself. “Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary” as Elvis Costello so bluntly put it, and what once seemed cute in the hands of Stevens is threatening to get out of hand as each new indie wannabe burdens us with their latest ramblings. Hell, Leonard Cohen only needed a one word title for Hallelujah so let’s have less of such monstrosities as Home As A Romanticized Concept Where Everyone Loves You Always And Forever and A Sad Country Ballad For A Tired Superhero, shall we?
This verbosity is catching, so how to knuckle down and describe this album? After several listens I am still divided between cutesy indie folk and minor masterpiece. Hard to categorise certainly, and this would appear to be a problem as Songbook has been doing the rounds since 2006 before finally gaining an official UK release.
Adopting the Stevens mode of recording, Hamilton has surrounded himself with mightily accomplished musicians to give depth to his lyrical ramblings. Fortunately, the Stevens’ comparisons do not stretch to an ambitious narrative or travelogue. This is at heart a simple album about Hamilton losing love and returning home to lick his wounds.
Songbook’s strengths are musical rather than lyrical. Strings, horns, percussion and multi-part harmonies are layered onto a basic acoustic guitar/rhythm section base, but the end result is surprisingly muscular. This is an album that never threatens to trip over into saccharine baroque pop overkill, with the result that the more upbeat tracks (Ms. Stacey Watson, Stepney Green and Jonathan Ashworth Rollercoaster) don’t disrupt the flow in a way they might have done in lesser hands.
The disadvantage of this approach is the lack of any real standout tracks, with the gospel-like grace of A Hymn For 2 Walks In Different Cities and the swelling grandeur of A Slight Return Home making the most lasting impression. Unfortunately, That Was Good But You Can Do Better, an unbearably twee closing track on which every member has a vocal turn, spoils the impact of the latter.
Fans of the aforementioned Sufjan Stevens and Belle And Sebastian are heartily encouraged to check this album out. Everyone else should proceed with caution.