At SxSW this past year, an animatronic cat drew me to a performance by a quirky young band from Saskatchewan called Rah Rah. I have to admit that i am only vaguely aware of where Saskatchewan is (north on Montana, for the record), but this band made such fun songs that i was drawn to see a second performance by them. And when i got home, i was compelled to track down their records.
Going Steady is their debut from two and a half years ago. They played a lot of these songs in concert, so i was kind of familiar with this material going in. This record has been on almost constant rotation here at The PostLibyan Cave ever since SxSW. This is, quite simply, as awesome record. This album grabs me in a way that few releases ever do. As a music critic, i have talked about the concept of duende before, that moment where you hear a piece of music for the first time, and it seems as familiar as an old friend. Listening to Going Steady was, for me, a 45 minute experience of duende. This young six-piece act from the Canadian Rockies make catchy, quirky music, with sarcastic lyrics. I can imagine sharing a beer with these kids while grilling out at some summer party, or sitting at a restaurant cracking jokes and having fun. These, in short, are my people.
And their album bounces along unpretentiously, having fun and being silly and snarky. It reminds me of Wild Like Children by Tilly and the Wall, Midgets With Guns by Pain, or The Charm of the Highway Strip by Magnetic Fields. It sounds nothing like any of those bands, but the spirit, the intent, is the same. It is a spirit of not taking anything seriously, but trying very hard to have fun doing it. I respect that attitude.
This is the sound of a young band figuring out what they want to do. In a sense, the album is built around a simple riff that runs through Betrayal Part 1, Betrayal Part 2, and Cuba/Peru, creating a sort of unifying these for the record. But let's go over each track.
Betrayal Part 1 sets the mood for the record with a staccato beat and snarky lyrics sung by intertwining male/female voices courtesy of Marshall Burns and Erin Passmore. This is a catchy rock song.
The second tune starts with a violin sawing beneath the guitar and a growing drum beat. Tentacles is perfectly catchy, a beat and voices in 4/4 time singing some nonsense about a tentacled woman, trolls, and tango lessons. What is this song about? Who cares, just tap your feet, loosen the shoulders, and go with it.
the Innocent One is the first of their serious tunes. It starts like an epic indie rock track circa 1997, with big reverby guitars and the two vocalists singing lightly, their voices intertwining over a martial drum beat. In the middle, the violin swells up with a mournful part that makes the sadness of this song stand out in stark contrast to the silliness of the previous track. Lovely.
Mixing it up a bit, My Guarantee is a loping country folk tune. A mandolin tinkles away and vocalist Erin Passmore takes the lead, her voice clear and in front. She has a great, classic voice, powerful and with a hint of natural tremolo. She reminds me of Kelly Hogan in a way, but Passmore's voice is a little higher in pitch. Anyway, this is the first hint of the power of her voice, which of course comes fully into its own in the next track, the epic, Duet for Emmylou and the Grievous Angel. This is, quite simply, beautiful. A masterpiece. It starts with a flurry of instruments, violin and guitars and keyboards and drums all going like crazy. Then it settles down, and Marshall Burns sings slowly, his voice a low drawl. When the chorus starts, the whole band joins in, singing
"It is fashionable
to be single
in big citie
but not in small towns
i fell in love
with her frown"
and then the violin takes the lead, sawing away while the guitars chime and the cymbals crash. Passmore and Burns alternate verses, but she comes in on the chorus on the "-gle" of single with an utterly lovely note, her voice clear and strong, warbling over the chorus. Damn, this is great stuff. Do yourself a favor and go find this. It's on YouTube.
After that almost country-esque tune, Rah Rah start their next song with keyboards, a synthpop intro to Fuck Nafta. The drums are great here, scattered and loud, and the violin is almost the lead instrument, sawing over the keys. Burns' slow drawl of a voice sounds bored, not angry, but the drums thunder along. This is another fun song.
Another favorite of mine is I've Got Faith. The lyrics are great fun, Burns complaining that his hair makes him dumb, but he won't shave it off because of the phallic nature of a bald male head. The song gets gloriously messy, with trumpet and violin and keys.
And then, just because they can, Rah Rah give us an utterly beautiful tune. Winter Sun is the third of their serious songs on this record, and it is utterly beautiful. The keyboard keeps a metronomic beat over violin and strummed guitar. Burns calls a line, and Passmore responds, really letting go with her voice, a wailing passionate response to Burns' slow drawled lines. There is a mournful horn in the background, just to make it perfect. And as the song goes along, the other girls in the band, keyboardist Samra Sahlu and violinist Kristina Hedlund also join in, adding their voices in layers responding to Burns' lyrics. This is brilliant stuff.
Castles is another serious tune, but one that is lighter and not as stunning as the previous one. I guess it just pales by caparison to what preceded it. The first half of the song is very delicate, just voices, strummed guitar, and faint accordion, but in the second part the drumbeat kicks up into a march, the guitars jangle, and the strings saw while Burns repeats "You are so something to me" over and over as the music builds. That part is wonderful.
Then it is back to Betrayal Part 2, with its driving beat and silly lyrics. Burns sings, "I swear that I once love a girl more than any hockey team in the world, but she left me for that asshole, I forget his name". He has a way with words, and that line makes me smile every time. It is so Canadian, and hilarious at the same time.
Our Hearts Don't Match Up is the final serious song on the record. Burns sings a slow love song, and Sahlu adds some really lovely keyboard parts, almost channeling Au Revoir Simone for a bit there.
And finally the beat and guitar riff from the two "Betrayal" songs is back for Cuba/Peru where the band inexplicably chants "If I was Cuba, you would be Peru". I am sure that makes sense in some sort of Canadian plains dweller way, but it ends the album with a floor stomping beat and a silly, happy mood. And that, really, is how a Rah Rah record should end.
I can find nothing wrong with this record. At all. I love it, every bit of it, and i would be completely surprised if someone didn't find at least something to like here. Rah Rah have created something really special, and i cannot recommend this record enough. Go and track down a copy. You can thank me later.