In my book, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a bit weird.
Though I tend to apply this maxim a little too broadly in personal terms, when it comes to music, the best acts are, more often than not, the ones who dare to experiment, those that exude a certain intangible otherness, a unique slant. By any reckoning, the worst any act could be is bland. At the same time though, any band sounds better if their creative adventurousness sounds unforced, a sort of innate oddness.
Which brings me to Montreal natives the Luyas. Though purveyors of orchestrally-embellished art-pop (remind you of any other Canucks?), theirs is a peculiarly refined sonic brew. The recording of their second album Too Beautiful To Work (I’m assuming that’s not Paris Hilton’s personal motto) was assisted by Arcade Fire’s string magi Owen Pallet and Sarah Neufield, but the only reason this is worth mentioning is that it’s a total red herring. The Luyas are a unique proposition, driven by zealous, if wilful, devotion to their own sheer difference.
Both band and album seek to shrug off most preset conventions. Their instrumentation involves a cornucopia of lesser-deployed devices, including French horn, bells, whistles, strings, wild percussion, jazzy keys, entire synthesiser galaxies and a custom-crafted 12-string zither named the Moodswinger. In short, they have their own, ultra-personal sound, and they’re determined you know it. Such ambitiousness and devotion to originality is, it must be said, only to be admired, and the overall effect can be bewitching.
Much as it pains me to say it, though, that’s part of the problem with Too Beautiful….Though the sound they create is often enthralling, a series of swirling sound lakes with exciting, indistinct shapes emerging from the depths, at the core of the Luyas you can’t help but feel there’s a first-rate pop group clamouring to be heard. The fear here is that in focusing totally on the sound, they may have forgotten the actual tunes.
This is not, I should emphasise, the case throughout the entire album. The opening title track works well as an introduction to the Luyas, being as it is a pop song smashed to smithereens and reassembled in angular fashion. Though a percussive keyboard melody redolent of Animal Collective leads the way, it is offset by thunderous drums and a staccato vocal, each never quite overlapping the rest seamlessly. It certainly piques your interest, but the opposing factions within the song and the fact that it never really goes anywhere keep it from being as effective as perhaps it might.
Unfortunately, the next segment of the album seems to drift aimlessly like musical miasma, the highly stylised idiosyncrasy of it all swamping any potentially accessible elements. Though most tracks bask in an ethereal shimmer, it is this curious quality in itself that comes closest to impressing, not the songs themselves. Initial promise seems to either ebb away with the aimlessness of the songs, or be undermined by tricksy artiness, for example ‘Worth Mentioning’’s hazy, shoegaze-flecked dream-pop collapsing beneath a foghorn blare and disjointed drums.
O.K, it’s not at all unpleasant-sounding, but it’s just too floaty and indistinct to really provide anything that completely connects. There seem to be vast tracts of space that gape between the disparate elements of the Luyas, and it’s honestly quite infuriating at times.
The same applies to the vocal stylings of Jessie Stein. Though, in ‘I Need Mirrors’, she declares ‘I don’t want to be a little girl’, it certainly sounds like the opposite is true. Possessor of a childlike sigh, she sounds like a little lost girl standing atop a behemothal glacier, innocent, confused and overawed. Initially this is a point of interest, her indistinct lyrical streams of loosely-bound moods and moments making you listen a bit harder. After a while, though, especially when the songs don’t seem to be doing much, her airy-fairy-cutesy-kooky-wonkiness begins to grate. Only in the more reflective moments of ‘Canary’ or ‘Seeing Things’ does it settle comfortably into its surroundings.
Thank Zeus, then, that just when my patience was fraying; they pulled the astonishing ‘Cold Canada’ out of the bag. After the relative plain that preceded it, it may have seemed more of a peak to me than it might otherwise, but it truly is a fantastic song. Starting with a synth motif that zips between as many points as it can, and riding a punching beat, it immediately pricks your ears up. It fairly surges, tinkling bells and gliding strings carrying it upward before- could it be? Yes, it bloody well is- a massive chorus! Symphonic in scope and execution, towering with glacial majesty whilst retaining all the oddball embellishments they’re fond of, it proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Luyas are entirely capable of writing great songs.
So why don’t they do it on the rest of the album? I must confess, this makes the Luyas, for me, a rather frustrating band. It’s hard to blame them though. It would appear, on this album, that they are suffering from a classic case of over-ambition. There is so much crammed into Too Beautiful To Work (There might even be a kitchen sink somewhere amongst the percussion) that you can’t help but feel they’ve stifled the one thing that should have come before all else – the songs. There is, as I say, a great pop act somewhere not far beneath the surface, and they certainly have a sound and style of their own, but for now, the Luyas are a band in development, with so much of Too Beautiful…resembling a series of sketches for something far better. A bit less bluster, a bit more focus and a lot more tunes, and they could be a force to be reckoned with.
(Too Beautiful To Work released 21st February)