A Northern Chorus
Bitter Hands Resign
ometimes you just can’t help thinking that a band might be happier in another genre. I mean, most of us wouldn’t have predicted that Neil Halstead wouldn’t really feel comfortable until he let slip the surly bonds of shoegaze, but despite the diminishing returns of the last few Mojave 3 albums his transfer to another idiom seems to have been good for both him and his audience. Who would have guessed that the guys in Wheat would make pop just as good if not better than their murky early material? Who, hearing “Just” or “High And Dry,” would have thought that Thom Yorke and company would feel more satisfied trying to spot-weld IDM to art rock?
Often you can spot a band that is being hemmed in by self-imposed constraints by a rather slavish devotion to those constraints. A Northern Chorus exist in the long, long shadow cast by early Bark Psychosis and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and at times it seems like they’re going down a checklist. Elongated track times? Excessive quiet/loud dynamics? Occasional use of strings? Obligatory crescendos? Oblique lyrics? All present and accounted for.
But, in keeping with the album title, the whole thing drags. When the drifting Hex clone “Subjects & Matter” eventually hauls itself up off its ass for some more guitar fireworks it feels like it’s happening because it’s supposed to rather than just because it is, the crucial (if ephemeral) distance between A Northern Chorus and a band like Explosions In The Sky. The latter manage to reel off a ten-minute track without it sounding forced whereas “This Open Heart” could easily end at the five minute mark, three minutes shy of where it finally comes to rest.
Now, to be clear I don’t think A Northern Chorus are a bunch of coolly calculated young lads trying to figure out how to crack that ever-lucrative epic post-shoegazer market, but even the appearance of phoning it in is nearly as damaging as the real thing. There are isolated lovely moments here, when they sing “Tell me what happens when the planets align” on “This Open Heart,” the chorus of “Prisoners Of Circumstance,” the opening hum and buzz of “Costa Del Sol,” but they take too long moving to and from those moments. It’s a rare and difficult trick to make eight minute long songs seem like they need to have all that room to stretch in, and it’s not terrible that it’s not a trick A Northern Chorus have quite figured out yet. Instead most of the tracks here suggest that the band would get noticeably better if they started pruning their songs down to the size of the good bits.
The first six tracks here are basically a wash, albeit a pleasant one if you’re into this sort of music; A Northern Chorus were never going to be the band to convert newcomers but if you’re wondering why it’s taking Godspeed so long to follow up Yanqui U.X.O. (possible answer: they’re trying to make a decent record this time) you’ll probably enjoy it just fine, extremely inessential instrumental “Watershed Divide” and all. It’s the last two tracks that provide a glimpse of life here, “Don’t Think Of Collapse” especially.
It’s hard to articulate what’s different about “Don’t Think Of Collapse” and the other songs here, but it’s easy to note the effects: Whereas “The Shepard & The Chauffeur” tries to be epic, tries so hard it fails like a little kid trying to act adult, “Don’t Think Of Collapse” simply, quietly and powerfully is. It helps that it has the best chorus here, the most powerful guitars, and that the only moment where it doesn’t feel vital is the brief ambient coda rather than bits scattered throughout the song. The rush when it all comes together in the middle of the track is exhilarating, and also makes clear the failings of most of Bitter Hands Resign, as you never get a feeling that pure from the tracks that come before it.
“Winterize” ends the album on both a positive and negative note. It’s a pretty great song, showing that A Northern Chorus can trim their songs all the way down to the three-and-a-half minute range without any loss of power. Unfortunately after that song there’s a full minute of noodling to close out the track. It weakens the punch of “Winterize” almost fatally, and it’s a truly baffling choice amidst an otherwise excellent ending to a middling album.
The last line on “The Shepard & The Chauffeur” is “You always said you’d never let yourself become an accessory to mediocrity.” Physician, heal thyself.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2005-06-27