Burdocks
What We Do Is Secret
Black Mountain
2005
B



a couple of months ago, Halifax's veteran Burdocks (no more “The”) played a free show here in Guelph, one I learned about by vaguely recognizing the music spilling out into the street on my way to another bar. I ducked in and I'm glad I did, even though their focus on material from What We Do Is Secret meant they didn't play a single song I recognized. Despite the three guys jumping up and down and yelling between the audience and the band (they weren't fans, I learned later, so much as really intoxicated) it was a thrilling show—tightly gnarled switchbacks wrung out like bubble wrap (lots of unexpected pops) and occasional screaming; the sort of thing that when done poorly goes a long way to explaining indie rock's poor reputation. But when it's done right, as it was that night and as it is here, it's got a density and energy that's just as exciting in its own way as any other genre can muster.

This, their fourth album and first to be readily available outside of their hometown, is a marked step forward for Burdocks from 2003's slight but enjoyable Airplane Tracks. They still have a willfully fleeting attention span when it comes to constructing songs: They boast on their Web site, “One of [our] tunes has more guitar attacks, bass lines, and tempo changes than most entire albums,” and it certainly feels like that, with nothing here really sticking to good old verse-chorus-verse (and yes, in a field as tightly regimented and stratified as rock, that does count as standing out from the crowd). Songs don't jerk back and forth so much as they just burst from one refrain or riff to another, and that spasmodic quality underlies the most thrilling spurts here, particularly the obvious single “Turn The Century.” But that same stubborn disregard for dramatic unity means that I often can't make out song boundaries unless I'm staring at my stereo. “Turn The Century” gains a strange return in the form of the less catchy (but crunchier) “Enemy,” and later, “We Will All Be Ghosts” and the brief “Call Girl Vs Call Centre” are even more deserving of a single track index.

Which isn't, in this case, a knock on Burdocks, as What We Do Is Secret works best as a 41-minute, exuberantly knotty patchwork of happy frenzy and occasional calm, frenetic bluster and lines gasped out by Seth Smith and Christian Simmons like they're racing each other to the end. It's only after the initial rush of the first five tracks that we get a real break in the form of the beeping, graceful guitars of “Made In The World,” and even that eventually blossoms into something louder. The dirty little secret lurking behind Burdocks' sound can be found in most of the other reviews of this disc; just wait for the writer to drop the words “math rock.” But that stuff is joyless and technical and usually as close to the boring end of experimental abstract electronic music as you can get with guitars and drums; this stuff feels much more handmade and sweaty and fun, even as it shares with math rock a tendency towards the hairpin and the progressive (for lack of less loaded word). But Burdocks remind you more of fellow Nova Scotians Thrush Hermit or even across the pond contemporaries Life Without Buildings (except for the vocals), and the way they sound gleeful when they yelp out, “You mistake this for a parade,” or “We were always too / Too fucking good for it!” means that no matter how ambitious the music gets there isn't any risk of them turning into Emerson, Lake and Palmer or whoever.

Their worth is actually most apparent during the closing trio of “OK OK,” “Mistake Parade,” and “Werewolves,” especially the latter. The slowly galloping “Werewolves” seems like a let down at first after the forcefully pent-up majority of What We Do is Secret, the singer muttering, “I have to be careful not to become one of those asshole werewolves” instead of yelling it. After four and a half minutes of relative wistfulness, you get one last, “I've been real careful,” and then the band plays the most conventional groove of the whole album, slowly fading it out over two minutes. Longer and less spiky than their other tunes, “Werewolves” skillfully wrongfoots you by not attempting to outdo Burdocks' earlier pyrotechnics. It works once you stop expecting some sort of whiz-bang ending to the proceedings. Unlike the similarly paced “We Seat Ourselves” from Airplane Tracks it's never boring, never sounds like they've run out of the ideas they shed all over the place earlier. Instead it feels like a necessary breather to wind down after the high spirits of the rest of these songs; rarely does music this Fugazi-esque sound devoid of anger and sadness.

For a band who sing “Let's re-embrace the narrative age,” Burdocks seem blissfully unconcerned with forging any sort of narrative, or with doing anything more complex and less immediate than mainlining addictively unhummable songs direct to the portion of your brain that wants to refer to guitars as “angular” and that secretly believes the only really great records take five or six spins to be recognized. On their Web site, the band says of What We Do Is Secret, “We deeply love this record and it makes us feel awesome about ourselves. We hope it will make you feel awesome about yourself.” The word “awesome” may be too devalued these days, but their unabashed cheerfulness is a welcome change from business as usual, and more than reflected in the music. One can only hope that the current vogue for Canadian indie rock finally gets them some of the exposure they deserve.


Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2006-01-19
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