Posted on February 14th, 2011 (1:09 pm) by Michael Cirigliano

Every band inevitably has to deal with some amount of backlash, and The Dears are certainly no stranger to this phenomenon. Despite a presence on the Montreal music scene for a good four years before that other Montreal-based band captured the spotlight, The Dears achieved their breakthrough with the critically-acclaimed No Cities Left—an incredibly beautiful and bleak album that writers couldn’t help but compare to the best of ‘90s-era Brit-pop. Despite the barrage of Blur and Radiohead associations, The Dears managed to win over a large audience with their dramatic flourishes and deep orchestral sound. Then came the hard times: their follow-up album, 2006’s Gang of Losers, was met with a cold shoulder, with critics and audiences alike finding The Dears reveling in too much bombast. Everything on Gang of Losers was large, anthemic, and heavy, and much like the backlash Arcade Fire [yes, that’s the other Montreal-based collective] received for Neon Bible, The Dears were left at a crossroads—return to their original formulas for overtly-dramatic song structure, or find yet another sonic avenue to pursue.

The weight of the decision didn’t bode too well for the band itself, with five of its original seven members leaving the group after the recording of 2008’s Missiles. It looked like the dire end for The Dears, and after eight years of recording and touring, it probably would have been just fine for the group to call it quits. Time heals all wounds though, and Degeneration Street signals a triumphant return for The Dears, with their collection of original members intact. Although much of their latest material returns to their signature take on operatic-indie rock, The Dears have also been exploring different nuances to their sound, and Degeneration Street finds Murray Lightburn and Co. quite adept at balancing the different characters of their music.

Opening tracks “Omega Dog” and “5 Chords” provide a launching point for showing the two musical aspects of the album. “Omega Dog” creates a thick wall of sound over a foundation of skittering drums and Lightburn’s jumpy vocals, eventually building to one of many moments of operatic grandeur—as the vocal line comes to an apex and Lightburn wails at the end of his phrase, a combination of reverb guitars, strings, and harpsichord take over the important role of maintaining the energy of the song until the next vocal entrance occurs. To contrast the dark world of “Omega Dog”, “5 Chords” is anthemic, joyously affirmative, and most importantly, really catchy. The title is completely tongue-in-cheek; a play on the standard musical joke that most rock music is made up of the same three chords. To that effect, The Dears do, in fact, stick with the same musical patterns throughout the track—you always know where the music is going, making the hook of the chorus even more satisfying when it arrives. Lightburn triumphantly sings “We should be home tonight/We’ll hold each other tight,” an otherwise overwrought and clichéd sentiment, with such confidence and conviction that you’re left loving the musical moment despite the underwhelming lyrical content.

Lyrics, in general, have never been a strong suit of The Dears, and although Degeneration Street has progressed in many ways over their previous work, the lyrics still have a ways to go. Despite an otherwise compelling groove in “Blood”, with Muse-esque guitars heavily crunching away, Lightburn’s delivery of “Since I was a baby I have always been this way/Well, I can see you coming from a billion miles away” comes off as juvenile, and not worthy of the musical setting it has been given. “Stick w/ Me Kid” takes the idea of overwrought sentiment even one step farther: “I will run ‘til there’s nowhere left to run/I will love ‘til there’s no one left to love.” In a context of nervous, paranoid rhythms, this declaration of hope is nowhere near as effective as the similar sentiment expressed in “5 Chords”. As anyone well versed in the music of Springsteen or Bon Jovi knows, you have to sell schmaltzy lyrics in an overly confident and fearless way.

As a whole though, Degeneration Street moves between The Dears’ two song-structure archetypes pretty seamlessly, weaving between dramatic bravado and energetic anthems in an otherwise effortless manner. Although there are several missteps along the way, with “Yesteryear” sounding like an odd 21st-century take on a sock hop dance, and “Easy Suffering” coming off as too coy and cutesy a track to find a place within the body of the album, you would be hard-pressed to find a fourteen-track album that didn’t falter at several moments over its lifespan. The Dears definitely could have done with a bit more self-editing in this regard, and realized that thinking in a more concise manner would make for an overall more engaging listen. However, even for weary ears, the final one-two punch of “1854” and the title track makes for a brilliant coda to the album; mixing the core elements of the band’s sound—swirling guitars, strings, heavy percussion, and Lightbody’s dynamic voice—in such an incredibly sophisticated way, that the catharsis of the music makes you helpless to forgive any weakness previously found in the album. The Dears work best under gloomy skies, and in this day and age, the dark tone of their work makes their brand of music both engaging and relevant.

Track List:

1. Omega Dog
2. 5 Chords
3. Blood
4. Thrones
5. Lamentation
6. Torches
7. Galactic Tides
8. Yesteryear
9. Stick w/ Me Kid
10. Tiny Man
11. Easy Suffering
12. Unsung
13. 1854
14. Degeneration Street

the dears
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Our Rating

78 / 100
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