Part of the recent Montreal renaissance of musical chance-taking innovators and cataloguers of the obscure and independent (Sunday Sinners, les Sequelles, We Are Wolves, Unicorns, BBQ0, Arcade Fire), the Dears offer hope to others on the outside, musicians and artists who have a disdain for the status quo and a love for individual expression, even as that subjective, biting, energetic vision has not been quite matched by ensemble chops of analogous virtuosity. Judging by his poetical dedication to denouncing fraud and political inadequacies and to his band’s continuously shifting lineup, the mercurial and uncompromising Murray Lightburn could be Canada’s very own Mark E. Smith. Behind him, the Dears are one of the nation’s finest bands, and have not even come close to issuing their best work. Small pockets of affirmation and dizzying moments of intense greatness, found predominantly on their early singles and later EPs, provide credible claims for superiority. (That said, Lightburn’s disdain for early Dears songs, amply documented by his hilarious liners for the hodgepodgy Nor the Dahlias: The Dears 1995–1998, is perhaps due to embarrassment over his youthful lack of musical clarity and his conventionally preening voice.)
The debut End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story suffers from overly earnest and often puerile songwriting craftiness; the album is quirky, unpredictable, but also jejune and fragmented. It concerns broken hearts, artificial celebrity and evanescent fashion with brittle and glib sarcasm that is redeemed by the artsy vernacular of the title song and the arch whimsy of the discriminating “This Is a Broadcast.”
No Cities Left is enigmatic, sophisticated and expertly crafted, challenging pop songs carried forth bravely by a singer unafraid of failure. Lightburn eschews the comforts and convention of mid-range singing. Each song is a winner — the Smiths-like “Lost in the Plot” has a brilliant new wavy vibe that belies the song’s constant sorrow and gives way to a jolting rhythm guitar and swirling orchestration. If there are weaknesses, some of the songs go one for 30 or so seconds too many and a few of the lyrical excursions are pretentious philosophizing. By now full time members Martin Pelland on shimmering guitar and drummer George Donoso III add continuity, mature chops and intriguing notes indigenous to the Dears only.
The two EPS have less of the sonic richness of No Cities Left but lyrics that reflect not squawk. The Protest EP is especially inventive: there is a dazzling kaleidoscope of ambitious and energetic music. The keyboards’ light throb, the flute’s insistently repeating harmonic structure and the massed voices give the opening track, “Heaven, Have Mercy on Us,” a sense of the next three songs’’ interplay between confident rock and roll and arty and elaborate suspension of traditional beats. Recorded in 2001, this EP suggests the Dears’ greatness and begs the question of what will happen if the Dears tale themselves less seriously and their fans more.
Skip the disappointing live album, Thank You Good Night Sold Out. It meanders, shuffles and seems self- absorbed. Again Fall-like, the fourth Dears release in one ten-month period underscores an obvious disdain for common sense. The studio debut is also no place to begin: it’s a series of marketable exercises — arty, self-conscious, maudlin, yearning but also compositionally naïve, lyrically diffuse — that never coalesce into anything solid.