Chicago orchestral pop sextet Canasta has been riding a giant (and much deserved) wave of hype since their debut EP – Find the Time – was released to critical acclaim in 2003. Boasting a formidable lineup of multi-instrumentalists and a pop sensibility that gave equal nod to both melody and texture, frontman Matt Priest and his bandmates shrewdly kept their names in the press for the past seven years, releasing first a proper long-player in 2006 and then a companion remix in 2008. Given the group’s overwhelming complex arsenal of material – both physical and musical – fans have patiently waited for Canasta’s sophomore release, which finally hit shelves just last month.
Rarely is new music categorized as being both immediately accessible and dizzyingly complex, but Priest and co-founder Elizabeth Lindau manage this feat so adroitly at times that it even makes Win Butler and Régine Chassagne look like rookies. With no fewer than a dozen instruments and sometimes nearly as many performers, the eleven tracks that comprise The Fakeout, the Tease, and the Breather cover a vast emotional terrain that ranges from exuberant and impassioned to tender and introspective.
Music, as we know, is an incredibly referential art form, and Canasta has expertly cherry picked the finest aspects of three of indie rock’s most powerful names in creating an album that manages to astound just as much on the first listen as it does on the fifth. If you were to pigeonhole an act into a subgenre – as rock crits are wont to do – then Canasta’s most obvious connection is with The Arcade Fire, whose highly anticipated third album sees its release in August. Montreal chamber pop darling references aside, the guitars bristle and shimmer more in the manner of Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, while Priest’s airy vocals and occasionally buoyant pop tunes recall The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman. Whether you consider yourself a devoted follower of all three acts or just a casual fan of one, Canasta’s poignant songwriting and technical fluency means everyone walks away happy.
Opening track “Becoming You” is a stroke of restrained genius, choosing to gently pogo off of Josh Lava’s expert drumming with lush keyboard and guitar work where it could’ve exploded into gratuitous bombast. The song is broken into thirds that are instantly ear grabbing in their eccentricity; things begin with two minutes worth of slow moving atmosphere before a midtempo ballad is introduced and ultimately left behind to revel in a blissful jam of wordless vocals and cascading piano melodies. It’s a little unorthodox, but Priest’s lyrics make it fairly clear from the outset that he’s not looking to fit into any particular mold: “I don’t care much for football scores, the great outdoors, guys being guys.”
“Mexico City,” a completely danceable track with shout-along group vocals and fantastic fiddle work from Lindau, is among the album’s most easily digested offerings. Listen intently enough however, and the attention to sonic layering becomes readily apparently. Herein we find a fascinating Canasta dichotomy: How do songs with Hammond B3 organ, melodica, grand piano, Fender Rhodes, and even Farfisa manage to sound so effortlessly breezy and winsome? The answer can be obtained from Kyle Mann and Ian Wilson, who between the two of them pepper the album with close to ten different keyboard instruments. It’s a true testament to the musicianship on display here that everything they touch is handled with such a grace and elegance; not once do these songs become bogged down by their own weight. Slowburner “Throwaway” is a showcase for this, juxtaposing the dissonance of the piano’s lower register with vocals that sway from whisper to wail and enough instrumental variations to keep the song going well past its five and a half minute length.
Other disc highlights include the pseudo-soul vibe of “Reading the Map Upside Down” (in which Matt Priest busts out some trombone) and “I Don’t Know Where I Was Going with This,” which is a satisfying blend of nuanced execution (Lava’s drumming is absolutely delightful) and memorable vocal melodies that will likely have you singing the song’s title along with the band. At nearly an hour in length, it may be a lot to take in, but to cite another obligatory critics’ cliché, this album is definitely one that warrants repeated listens. Thankfully though, the songwriting here is so sharp that Canasta makes it exceedingly difficult to give The Fakeout, the Tease, and the Breather only one spin.