It feels kinda like 2010 is getting a second life around here lately. Last week I posted my old review of The Congregation’s Not For Sleepin’ and now I’m doing a review of another album that I missed two years ago. Some things are worth revisiting, though, and honestly my excuse for not reviewing it back then is just laziness. Now that I’ve actually heard Canasta’s album, I feel like an idiot.
If it hadn’t been for a record release show by Young Jesus back in January, I probably still would be ignorant to the sounds of Canasta. Luckily they opened that show with a tremendous set, capped off by the greatest version of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” I’ve ever heard. I’ve been listening to The Fakeout, The Tease, And The Breather off and on since then, but decided to wait until now to give it a review.
The thing that I’m most impressed with on this record is how consistent it is. Every song shares some sonic kinship with those surrounding it. That quality doesn’t seem that appealing to me in theory, but the way it’s executed is awesome. Each piece has its own identity, but they fit so well together as a whole that I couldn’t imagine anything being done differently.
Stylistically the album falls into the category of orchestral pop. I also refer to this kind of music as “you know, kind of Belle & Sebastian-y.” The influence of that great Scottish group is all over Canasta’s sound, but it’s never used as a crutch. The biggest difference is Matt Priest’s vocals. He sounds nothing like Stuart Murdoch. Priest has a growl in his voice that will never be referred to as “twee.” The strings, the sometimes accompanying female vocals, the guy who is a great guitarist but only gets to showcase his skills in flashes, all that stuff is here. Somehow Canasta has built a more visceral version of B & S that works just as well.
The albums opening track, “Becoming You,” slowly introduces us to all the different elements the band will be using. Organ, then Priest’s voice, build up a slow and somber first verse. Midway through that we’re joined by a flickering electric guitar and those backing harmonies. Once the drums kick in, the song starts moving at a quicker pace. By the time we get close to the end sounds are coming from everywhere before fading away to one guitar. This is the point where Canasta envelops you in their compositional skills.
As great as that song is, it doesn’t hold a candle to my favorite song on the album, “Mexico City.” I’d actually heard this one a while back on a Spotify playlist. For whatever reason I didn’t register that it was Canasta, so I didn’t follow up. This one has a driving drum and bass line that immediately sets your toes a-tappin’. The first time I heard the record all the way through, I was struck by one point in particular: Priest’s delivery of the line “You hail a taxi” might be my favorite single line in any release by a Chicago band since I’ve lived here. The dynamic shift in his voice provides me with sheer joy. Every time I hear that line, I get a big smile on my face.
While a good number of the songs included on The Fakeout have an upbeat, sometimes bouncy, feel to them, there are dark notes as well. On the back to back tracks “Magazine (Songwriter On A Train)” and “Appreciation” the band creates an ominous feeling of dread. The masterful performance of violin on the latter track really elevates it to another level. Add in the electric guitar that floats in and out during the refrain and a piano solo that provides a good foundation for the final minute of explosive sounds.
The Fakeout, The Tease, And The Breather is an example of a band working at the height of their powers. Canasta is a sextet that feels like a full big band with the intimacy of a solo singer/songwriter. The lyrics are haunting, the melodies gorgeous, and the instrumental performances by everyone involved are powerful and evocative.
In just a little over a week, Canasta will be celebrating their tenth anniversary with a show at Schubas featuring a set filled with great music and guest appearances by musicians from Canasta’s past. As of this writing, tickets are still available. It’s a huge deal reaching the ten year mark, and I hope they stick together for ten more. Bands like Canasta don’t come around every day, and we should cherish the one we have.