A decade on, Beacons is still telling its curious, detailed stories of city life.
Facebook’s recent Ten-Year Challenge meme got me thinking: a) What are Zuckerberg and his army of conniving bastards planning on doing with all the free personal data people are blindly sharing with them? And, more relevant to this forum: b) How different does my musical world look now than it did a decade ago? 2009 marked the year my focus shifted to exclusively writing about Canadian music on Quick Before It Melts, which in turn led to DOMINIONATED’s creation, so I don’t feel very far removed from who I was then to who I am now. What has changed in the intervening years are the records from 2009 that continue to resonate with me and that I frequently re-play. At the tail-end of 2009, I declared Dan Mangan’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Attack In Black’s Years (By One Thousand Fingertips), Spirit Guides by Evening Hymns, Metric’s Fantasies, and The Rest’s Everyone All At Once among the year’s best releases. They’re all solid records in their own right, but if forced to go back and rewrite this bit of blogging history, Beacons, the sophomore record from Ohbijou, would rank among 2009’s most endearing and enduring albums.
My favourite ever interview question response came from the first interview I did for Quick Before It Melts in 2006 with Ohbijou leader Casey Mecija around the time Ohbijou released their debut, Swift Feet For Troubling Times. “Where will you be a year from now?” I asked; “Everywhere,” she answered. Though it may not have happened exactly 365 days later, with Swift Feet…’s follow-up, Ohbijou found themselves swept into the fervour and frenzy growing around baroque pop bands. The attention wasn’t always pleasant or on point (a pox on the NME for saying “Make It Gold” is “the sound that Satan makes when he slithers on his belly through the air conditioning vents,”), but very much warranted.
Among its contemporaries, Beacons distinguished itself not only for moving Ohbijou towards a richer, more robust, full-band sound but also as a small, thoughtful leap forward for orchestral pop music. That particular sub-genre began feeling tired and staid in 2009; pastoral bands like Fleet Foxes and Midlake were wilting, fighting for attention with the likes of Animal Collective and The xx. Beacons transplanted Ohbijou’s string-based atmospherics from the pastures and into the city, painting Mecija’s delicate voice with urban grit. As Chromewaves’s Frank Yang commented at the time, “If Swift Feet… was the aural equivalent of a walk through the woods on a crisp and silent Winter’s day, …then Beacons continues that walk through the city on the cusp of Spring. It’s not concerned with the bright lights and hustle and bustle of downtown, but the side streets where real life happens and a thousand individual stories unfold behind closed doors.”
Ten years on, Beacons is still telling its curious, detailed stories of city life, and compelling me to listen to its whispers. Whether it’s recounting trips on Toronto’s Bathurst Street bus to “where all the lonely people meet” on the frosty “Black Ice”, or making obscure references to “doubters who whisper secrets with lightning lungs” on “Thunderlove”, Casey Mecija’s distinguished voice draws you in with its confidence. Lyrical moments of wonder and awe (the aforementioned gem “Make It Gold”) are balanced by maudlin introspection and anticipation (“Cannon March”). When not beautifully harmonizing on many of the songs, it often seems as if Mecija is duetting with her sister Jenny’s violin. On opener “Intro to Season”, their melodies swoop around each other like courting swallows, lending lightness and a sense of movement to the brief vignette. Bassist/banjo player Heather Kirby and drummer/trumpeter James Bunton, provide Beacons with a heartbeat while adding just the right amount of flourish and flair alongside Anissa Hart (cello), Ryan Carley (keyboards), and Andrew Kinoshita (mandolin). Their collective efforts result in a record full of contrasts: simultaneously night and day; intoxicating and sober; “Something sinister, something good (“Eloise & the Bones”).
I’ve always found it odd the way we relegate music to the year in which it was first released as if it remains static and locked in the past. Music is not ephemeral; it evolves over time. Sometimes it catches up with its own inventiveness and forward-thinking, while other times it decomposes into a relic. But every so often, a record like Beacons comes along, that continues revealing new facets of itself and unlocking hidden treasures well into maturity. That is truly the real ten-year-and-beyond musical challenge: to find longevity and relevance long after the standard album release cycle is over. Not to be everywhere as Casey Mecija predicted of Ohbijou (who have been on hiatus since 2013), but to be everywhen.
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