Winnipeg’s Royal Canoe perform an impressive balancing act, where inventiveness is not (entirely) sacrificed for the sake of potential popularity.
Somewhere around the end of the decade, art rock — high-falutin indie made by the likes of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, the Dirty Projects, and so on — lost its charm; trying was no longer cool. It was bumped aside by deliberate straightforward-ness, in both louder and more languid forms. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the decline of physical sales, the rise of mega festivals, and the end of an authenticity-centred ethos that had dominated indie for the better part of thirty years. Having your song featured in a car commercial became the best way (the only way?) to make a buck. It wasn’t selling out, it was adaptation.
Fast forward to the present and a band like Portugal. The Man, who were firmly planted on the artier side of the tracks throughout the 00s, have a number one song, expertly constructed for maximum car commericability. For a Canadian example, the Darcys shed their usual black and white moodiness for garish greens and pinks in a bald-faced attempt at pop-fueled longevity. I can’t tell if it worked, but they are still around so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. All of this begs the question: is there a middle ground between cheap hooks and carefully crafted and considered sonic exploration?
On Royal Canoe’s new album, Waver, the Winnipeg six-piece perform an impressive balancing act, where inventiveness is not (entirely) sacrificed for the sake of potential popularity. They get away with this by writing songs that vaguely remind you of indie touchstones while having enough flavour and personality to not feel like mere ripoff rock. It’s a good trick. The album’s sonic flow is that of a Spotify playlist — another good trick. These are not insults, they are just proof what savvy songwriters Royal Canoe can be. With the exception of a few songs in the middle of the album — the ones the really, really sound like Portugal. The Man — Waver is strong. The first five songs especially bang, seamlessly flowing from familiar vibe to familiar vibe while keeping things interesting enough to captivate the most jaded listener. “Black Sea”, with its sax scronks and undeniable groove is a real highlight as is the nearly hip-hop “Ashes, Ashes”, which features California-based swiss army knife Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. Album closer “Don’t” is my favourite of the bunch. The refrain “Love is a dream and they can never shake you awake” is an emotional defence against that very online feeling that everything you know is wrong.
Honestly, I approached Waver with a great deal of skepticism. I’m wary of just about all CanCon pop-rockers coast-to-coast. So often the music produced by this kind of band is acceptable and rarely remarkable. I’m still not sure if I actually like Waver or not. Like, why would I listen to this if I could listen to Dear Science or In Rainbows, or ten-year-old Mutemath, for god’s sake? The answer, I think, requires taking me out of the equation. At this point, the music Royal Canoe expertly references is kinda . . . old. The stuff that sounds familiar to me could be a gateway for another, most likely younger listener. And that’s beautiful. One person’s been-there-done-that can be a gateway to a lifetime of musical discovery and that is worth something. On top of that, Royal Canoe doesn’t phone it in and that is what really makes Waver successful. Originality doesn’t always equal impact, but attention to detail and honesty almost always does and Waver has both of those features in droves.