Little Heart’s Ease
Three Gut / Rough Trade
oyal City debut employed two songwriting forms: a frequently gorgeous strain of sun-dappled miserabilism and a type of sketchy acoustic balladry that sounded like it was recorded in a kitchen. 2001’s Alone At The Microphone, the inconsistent second album, introduced a new type of song that strutted and fretted, pealing out with banjo and guitar and showing more teeth than Aaron Riches and company usually did (“Bad Luck” most obviously). They also started singing more about, to quote a song title, “Blood & Faeces”. It helped shrug off the impression that their music was nothing more than alt-country tinged folk, putting them more squarely where they belonged: pop (indie division).
So now, signed with Rough Trade everywhere but home in Canada, they release their third album. Yes, both previous records were spotty rather than superb (although the slo-mo refrain of the title track from At Rush Hour The Cars deserves to soundtrack your summers), and this one sadly isn’t any different, but for the first time it sounds like Royal City is stuck.
Their debut had novelty going for it, less so if you were familiar with the Smog/Palace/Songs: Ohia axis, but the better tracks were stunners nonetheless. And Alone At The Microphone considerably extended the band’s palette, both in terms of instrumentation and performance. Little Heart’s Ease, meanwhile, doesn’t have quite the same zip as either, the zip that lets you forgive the filler. And, to top it off, the band is definitely not doing anything new here.
The strong moments—the energetic and hooky “Jerusalem”, the slightly droning “O Beauty” and “Count The Days”, the truly sumptuous second half of “Enemy”, and the gently Guthrie-led gem “Ain’t That The Way”—are nearly good enough to boost Little Heart’s Ease to where it needs to be. But they are quite literally outnumbered: “Bring My Father A Gift”, “Cabbage Rolls” and “Take Me Down To Yonder River” are Royal City-by-numbers, and “My Body Is Numbered” is only distinguished by the unfortunate extra bit of nasal whine in Riches’ voice. I can’t even remember what “That My Head Was A Spring Of Water” or “Can’t You” sound like after listening to the album about twenty times, and “She Will Come” is a rousing massed refrain looking for a song.
Even the filler is decent, of course. There are much worse things in this world than merely average Royal City songs. Riches’ songwriting continues to be fairly interesting, and his continued fascination with blood works better than you might think, it standing for far more in his metaphorical landscape than just violence or death. Three albums in, though, and Royal City have had only had three solid base hits. They’re all set up for the grand slam I know they can pull off. The question is: will they do it? Only time will tell.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2004-06-14