Monday, March 14, 2011

The Dears Deliver: A Review of Degeneration Street

In the future, when discussing Murray Lightburn, leader of The Dears, can we please dispense with all that "black Morrissey" shit?

I mean, Degeneration Street, the 2011 album by The Dears, is such a leap beyond earlier work by the band -- stuff like 2003's No Cities Left which did sound a tiny bit like Morrissey on a few cuts -- that I find it hard to write about the album without using terms like career-defining masterpiece.

The Dears have managed to create a record that at once wraps up the band's influences into a wholly original product without forsaking all of those things that listeners enjoyed about the band in the first place.

As I played Degeneration Street over and over last week, I kept thinking about the Manic Street Preachers' 1994 album, The Holy Bible.

Prior to that, the group had sounded like a band messily piecing together all the stuff they had listened to as young(er) men.

Suddenly, on one record, those disparate elements were sewn into something new and exciting that seemed to transcend the earlier work.

Add to that the fact that both that 1994 Manics record and this 2011 Dears album deal with spiritual distress.

With song titles like "Blood", "Thrones", and "Lamentations", there's no denying the Christian vibe at work here.

I don't think Mr. Lightburn's personal beliefs matter very much, though; the language he uses is the language of the church, with the effect being a sort of spiritual rock-and-roll closer to The Who's "The Song is Over" than U2's overt "Gloria".

Okay, back to Morrissey and influences: I don't want to say that one can't hear certain things here -- prog and glam, U2, mid-1980s Prince -- but that the influences are never as obvious as they were before when lazy journalists tossed around that "black Morrissey" stuff.

No, Degeneration Street is just direct and stunning, brimming with more emotion and invention than a thousand Coldplays.

I found this interview with Lightburn on the website and this quote jumped out at me:

"I feel like the supporters that we have out there…there's definitely a few that are casual, but I would say the core of it is pretty fervent and we’re fervent for them. When you get emails from people that are like 'this music is saving my life right now,' I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to have music save your life and that's what we're trying to do I guess in some kind of way without really knowing it."

When second song "5 Chords" kicks off, it's an exhilarating thing, the guitars surging in a kind of mechanical momentum, Lightburn's vocals singing of mothers and fathers, earth and heaven. It's not the sound of pretension but the sound of genuine struggle, as the guitars chop and the drums pound.

Suddenly, in a guitar figure with the lightness of The Cure's "Friday I'm In Love", the song opens up and Lightburn's vocals sound suddenly more immediate:

"We should be home tonight. We hold each other tight. I will with all my might."

As the drums crash in fits worthy of Keith Moon, the song zooms forward, providing the sort of transcendence that only the best rock-and-roll can offer.

The Waterboys once sang of "The Big Music" and every cut on Degeneration Street delivers that; The Dears have managed to make that large sound without simplifying things for a mass audience.

In the perfect world, a song like "Thrones" would be this era's "With or Without You".

When shards of guitar crackle in-and-out on "Blood", and Lightburn sings that "Ever since I was a baby, I've always felt this way", I was struck by how much the entire record reminded me of Maria McKee's 1996 album Life is Sweet.

Here, as on that earlier neglected record, the lyrics speak of spiritual concerns without being heavy-handed about it; Lightburn, like McKee before him, sounds human and genuine.

My problem with a band like Muse is that they sometimes sound a bit bland, the lyrics just killing time until the next guitar riff comes around.

While I may not entirely understand Lightburn's spiritual concerns on every cut on Degeneration Street, it's clear that he's singing from the heart without faking his emotion. On some tracks, he's direct and at ease, on others he sounds like a man at the end of his rope.

Most importantly, nothing here sounds forced.

Check out how effortless "Lamentations" sounds: the music lumbering and then softening as Lightburn goes from a near-shout to a whisper.

The standout track for me is "Galactic Tides" with its Hawkwind-meets-Queen flare.

I really don't know what the song is about but it's such an amazing piece of work that I'd be foolish not to try to write about it.

There's bit here that sound funky, bits that sound like Pink Floyd's "Time" as covered by Suede, all working towards something that, like Radiohead's "Airbag", delivers the listener a sort of cosmic moment.

In addition to Lightburn, The Dears feature Natalia Yanchak on keyboards, Robert Benvie on guitars and keyboards, Patrick Krief on guitars, Roberto Arquilla on bass, and Jeff Luciani on drums and percussion, with all of the members providing backing vocals.

Check out The Dears on Dangerbird Records.

Or, follow the band on their MySpace page.

In the States, you can buy Degeneration Street by The Dears on iTunes here.

You can also buy Degeneration Street by The Dears on CD on Amazon here or on MP3 here.