Vancouver sextet Brasstronaut are on the up. Their 2010 debut album, Mount Chimaera, was astonishingly well received in their native land, garnering a place on the Polaris Prize longlist and scooping the SOCAN Echo Prize for songwriting. Lead singer Edo Van Breemen appended “one to watch” to his fictional-sounding name with some startlingly accomplished performances.
Yet, with the band’s bright and energetic sound (not quite ska, as their name may suggest) still taking root, they have rejigged its composition like a restless chef, tongue outpointed in concentration, perpetually tinkering with a recipe for gazpacho. Such quests for perfection have ruined some artists; made others.
In Brasstronaut’s particular case, Van Breemen has stepped cautiously back from the fore, beckoned his bandmates forward, and filed the edges off anything overtly pop – despite the presence of New Pornographers‘ producer Colin Stewart, seemingly a willing co-conspirator in drawing the shades on Mount Chimaera’s glaring brilliance.
But let’s not over-egg the pudding here: these are the same six guys who pencilled Hearts Trompet – the aforementioned award-winning track whose light, consumable melodies are counterbalanced by its freewheeling soundsmithery – and Mean Sun is far from an about-face. It’s different enough from its predecessor to illustrate real progress, yes, but similar enough to render that progress logical.
The album starts with promise as Bounce grows patiently into its space, the band’s fondness for layered crescendos becoming apparent. There’s minimal input from Van Breemen, but when he breathes life into his vocals, they captivate, holding the floor with captivating restraint, like near-namesake Chad VanGaalen. And yes, there is brass, but it’s doused in melancholy. The Brasstronaut sounds lonely.
The six-piece really find their feet with Francisco, which proffers Bounce’s party tricks with more conviction: a long instrumental intro juxtaposes lounge-type elements against a metronomic kick drum. It’s the type of rich simplicity that made Radiohead‘s Hail To The Thief so timeless, topped off with a vaguely tropical, Bellowhead-esque jam at the end. If that sounds like a high watermark, it’s because it is.
Title track Mean Sun then sends Brasstronaut into a black hole. Its melancholy jazz trappings, in fact, approximate Black Heart Procession via Flash Gorden incidental music; a dark wave-style minor chord canvas illuminated by a tantalisingly delicate chorus.
Thereafter, the LP hits and misses. Fossil’s ponderous pace arrives at just the wrong time, sitting like a rock in the band’s trickling stream of ideas; Moonwalker sits uncomfortably as the obligatory slow-burner, strung out on too little for too long; Hymn For Huxley and Falklands feel comparatively bereft of inspiration, the latter’s climactic jam feeling rather more self-indulgent than those if its trackmates.
The Grove, on the other hand, fulfils its remit with aplomb: Van Breemen ascends to his elusive best – both aurally and lyrically – while his bandmates carve out a track that takes on a life of its own, channeling Doves minus their anthems. Revelstoke Dam changes tack with a folk-laden, Fleet Foxes-type opening and, eventually, a cavalcade of jazz-like woodwind and clattering percussion that sets the heart racing.
Brasstronaut don’t leap between genres so much as they shuffle, but Mean Sun, at its best, is an album that quietly exhilarates, like the more plaintive moments of Coldplay‘s Parachutes reimagined in Technicolor. A multi-faceted autumnal soundtrack – even if it isn’t quite perfect.