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The Dears – Degeneration Street

The Dears - Degeneration Street album coverMy expectations for this album were high. Very high. Their last album Missles, for me, was a masterpiece. Others didn’t agree. Most of them, in fact. (maybe even me at first) Even some fans disliked it. (and to demonstrate that, sort of, even in a few of the good reviews of the new album, some show that they are not even paying attention, with comparisons to Coldplay ??!!?? and TV on The Radio, which hints of a non-musical comparison in my humble opinion, if you get my drift) But for me, it was a grow-er, not a show-er. It was subdued, reflective and all the other words you use to describe something not quite as loud and flamboyant as the last thing one of your favorite artists created. The tracks were wonderful, and to me, perfect. But they also held a promise.  A bit like that ugly duckling, except we’re clued in on what that duck really is. Now all we have to do is wait and watch everyone else discover what’s to come. Now that wait is over and The Dears have become part what they were, part what they turned into and part something entirely new. Some have failed to see it that way, sure.  But then again some of those same people prefer to listen to what sounds like the Beach Boys finding a software synth and recording their music in a broom closet with a mini-cassette recorder* with towels over their mouths.  I guess I mean… I wasn’t too surprised. Degeneration Street is in my opinion the culmination of everything The Dears have done right over the years, finally captured and executed fearlessly.

I wanted to wait a period of time before writing anything about this album, I wanted to get inside it and listen to it’s dark corners, to be able to know it rather than just be familiar. I must make a small disclaimer here, I am a Fan. (yes, with a capital F) But this album is too good, too right for this moment in time to discard my opinion just because I’ve loved what they’ve done in the past.

I was first clued in to what was coming when I found THIS video one day on YouTube, a live recording from their residency shows in Mexico City, playing their entire new album for a live audience far before its release. Pretty unheard of. What I saw was new, strong (and loud) material from a band that seemed to be playing as if their lives depended on it, except with wide, knowing grins. There’s a moment in the video when Krief gets a look on his face that seems to be saying “am I here? AND a part of this? Nice!”, a moment that it all seems to have dawned on him. The passion was palpable from just that one video. You could cut the enthusiasm in the room (the band and audience) with a knife. I don’t think you have to be a fan to get chills from watching it for the first time. Then the second, third, and fourth times.  The Dears have never been this good live, period. Close, but no cigar. They have either found their passion again, or they spent some serious time in the “shed”, rehearsing the songs and playing together for hours at a time, for weeks without days off. They sound renewed. And Omega Dog is a perfect example, both its live and studio versions. The drums are front and center, then that familiar guitar kicks in.  It slowly progresses into a grandiose showcase for the guitar-freak-out talents of Patrick Krief perfectly juxtaposed before a bed of tape-strip choir voices/strings in the Mellotron style, then a digital harpsichord overtaken by space-out synth/effect noise and an onslaught of bass and drums. Then the abrupt end. What a pay-off.

This makes way on the album to the more familiar Dearsiness of  “5 Chords”, which delivers the romanticism they’re famous for. Then “Blood”, the second track previewed before the album’s release, (another with a great live version you can see HERE), contains a bit of that different stuff I was mentioning. It’s louder, harder and very in your face while keeping that Dears catchiness and pop genius.  This track really puts it out there, front and center, that this is by far the best sounding Dears album so far. The mix pops in just the right places.  “Thrones” follows strongly in spite of my inability to decipher it lyrically. Perhaps another metaphor for the band’s past troubles? “Lamentation” feels like it would belong on Missiles, at first. But on Missiles the track would have stuck with the tone of the first two minutes, never moving out of it’s (beautiful) comfort zone. Instead it explodes in unexpected directions.  “Torches” is a short interlude (instrumental), leading into what I consider the real standout of the album, “Galactic Tides”.  My god, this is nearly prog! Epic epicness at an epic scale. There’s not much here lyrically, but what is there counts. It feels pessimistic and gloomy, but in a beautiful, large way. As if to cheer us up, next we get “Yesteryear”, an upbeat, uplifting track with a Holland-Dozier-Holland beatstyle.  But with a chorus that would have made those guys flee the room, perhaps even in fear (in a good way, from today’s perspective).  Then in this same track, we have a middle section with a Beatlesque vocal interlude. And on a side note, is it misery or mercy? Or maybe both? In “Stick With Me, Kid”, we get what The Dears are great at, the romantic, triumphant, scream-along-in-the-crowd anthem.

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“I will run, till there’s nowhere left to run.

I will love, till there’s no-one left to love.”

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Trust me, if you ever get the chance to see this one live, you’ll pump your fist in the air and sing along. In the past, this track could have easily aped the lo-fi, back to basics era of Blur, but this is a Dears that has moved past, if not beyond, their influences to arrive in a place of their own. And they deserve credit for it. Damn it. This is one track that ends too soon and probably could have used another minute of sing-along anthemic goodness and some more of that Krief magic at the end.

While “Tiny Man” is probably my least favorite track, musically, it is a great song. It makes me think about the world as it is now, how we can feel like there’s no place to feel.. not necessarily safe.. but truly free to live lives rather than feeling like you’re constantly fighting just to stay alive and healthy within four walls. The lyrics feel like a fantasy escape, perhaps the kind of escape every father or husband fantasizes for his family and loved ones, in which he finally finds a way to protect and shelter, away from the fears and dangers of the world. Where nothing bad happens, materialism never corrupts, and they will want for nothing. An ark into space to planet perfect, where the children can “grow and no-one will know”.

“Easy Suffering” could easily fit on “No Cities Left”, as could “Unsung”,  especially when the change comes and Natalia gets another shot at the mic in the latter. Lovely song, with a Radiohead-esque intro (without aping them) and a nice big finish. So many of these songs seem to me to be talking directly about the band itself, none more-so than “1854”, with it’s common Dears theme of not giving up, no matter what. Echoes of “Never Destroy Us” are present, but subtly. Musically, it’s far away and above that track.

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“We will surrender, at the sight of frozen hell..

and we will surrender, on the last ring of the bell…”

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Another Dears anthem, and it works. Chills. All the way to the strangely familiar sounding ending that I can’t put my finger on. Then there’s that last ring of the bell. Perfect. Of course you cannot ignore the title of the song, which refers to the year of the Kansas-Nebraska act and the first Lincoln-Douglas debate (before they ran against each other), where Lincoln first laid out his reasoned argument against slavery. How it must have felt, knowing that a semblance of freedom may be just around the corner, yet just out of reach. They probably realistically hoped only for their children, or their children’s children. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. In any case, chills again.

The title track ends the album beautifully. What a showcase for Murray’s voice this is. And there’s a guitar bit in there that sounds like a cross between Brain May and Robert Fripp, with a limp.  It all ends far too soon, like so many great things. (unlike this review, har har) And we are left wondering how long it will be before we get another Dears album, as well as who will be on it. I really, really hope they can keep this lineup together this time around. It’s magical. It will be hard to top this one. No, I don’t mean The Dears. I mean everyone else.

It would be far too easy to simply say that The Dears have “matured”, a term usually having more to do with comfort and a kind of settling when it comes to music. A term used by people who still revere their heroes, but are afraid to tell them they’re getting stale. No, I think The Dears are actually late bloomers, just now reaching their peak and finding their real voices. Let’s hope this is just the beginning and we get to keep The Dears around for a long time to come. Long live The Dears.

(you can still download “Blood”  from the Dangerbird site by giving them an e-mail address, and “Omega Dog, as well as other tracks, all over the blogosphere, but really you should buy this masterpiece, as the CD sounds magnificent!)

And this just in! Great live session on KEXP, short interview, 4 songs.

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*The first time I heard one of these, it was interesting. The second and third time is was quaint, a novelty. From the fourth onward, I wanted to claw my ears out with the broken, jagged keys of a Casiotone like a smoke-stained, over-sized plastic q-tip. Enjoy it, embrace it, love it while it’s here, but please stop worshiping it. I’m not putting a name to this genre because far too many good artists have been labeled using the same label as this dreck. So speculate away, bitches. I’m not playing. Lo-fi all you want, but when you use the same instruments, the same settings and the same vocal affectations…even the same beats… it gets real old, real fast. Parts of the 80s were fun, sure. But parts of them were also repetitive, forced and duplicative.

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