Album Reviews

Chief – Modern Rituals

(Domino) UK release date: 20 September 2010

Leaping from obscurity to one of the most successful labels around without so much as an EP to their name, there’s an immediate suspicion that there must be something about these Chief fellows, Evan Koga, Mike Moonves and brothers Danny and Michael Fujikawa. But what, exactly?

Though Santa Monicans all, Chief formed at New York University, and, having subsequently returned to their West Coast roots, their sound is one built on the emotional foundations of heartache, longing and loss. It’s potent territory from which the band can strike, particularly when they do so along Neil Young-style, melancholic folk-rock guidelines.

As is the case with the great Canadian songwriter, Chief invite participation with their particular brand of sorrow, and central to their approach is a gorgeous-yet-imitable preference for soaring vocal harmonies. Astute album opener The Minute I Saw It, for instance, evokes a rockier Fleet Foxes number, and it’s a recurring theme; the outstanding Breaking Walls trades on an enduringly inviting chorus that’s makes it hard to resist chiming in.

And while the debutants lack the wherewithal to carry such strengths for the duration of Modern Rituals – as early as Nothing Wrong there’s a touch of unassuming soft-rock creeping in – their inspired moments are frequent and convincing: Wait For You pares back a resolute, reverberating verse for a stunning, vocal-led chorus that echoes the Beach Boys; This Land invites guitarist Danny to the fore, his comparatively tender tones gracing one of the album’s most exquisitely executed passages.

Indeed, it is the first of a series of tracks that reveal Chief’s deft amalgamation of West Coast folk-rock with, curiously, mid-’90s melancholia: In The Valley grows from a simple strummed progression to a heartbreaking climax that recalls The Verve‘s most potent hymns; Stealing evokes the kind of songcrafting acumen that made The Man Who-era Travis so irresistible.

A greater focus on classic practice then prevails. You Tell Me corrals album themes of longing into the type of powerful crescendo Ontarian nearlymen Pilate almost rode to greatness; the pairing of Summer’s Day and Irish Song represents Chief’s deference to traditional folk principles, the tracks neatly exhibiting travelling blues and country ballad respectively, though not to the detriment of Modern Rituals’ admirable cohesion.

Album closer Night And Day, indeed, draws on the momentum built steadily throughout proceedings: unsettled staccato-snare and world weariness subside in the face of a soaring choral resolution, marking the band’s staunchest assertion and closing the LP’s affairs with a bang rather than a whimper.

It would seem that Chief are debutants whose integrity, musical and thematic, has benefited from a diversity of influence. Zig-zagging cross-country has afforded the band a subtle grasp: while West Coast sunshine glows from their every chord, they are not bound to Pacific pop principles, and their dexterous handling renders Modern Rituals a beguiling proposition and Chief a band to keep a very close eye on.

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