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Record Review: The Dears’ Degeneration Street

By / Posted on 18 February 2011

Degeneration StreetFans of the Dears have come to expect certain things from the Montreal indie rock band. Frontman Murray Lightburn will always sound like a modernized Morrissey, simple pop rhythms will be complemented by aureate guitars, synths, strings and flutes, and — most importantly — the entire affair will come across as a film score rather than a traditional rock album. There is a reason, after all, that their albums’ liner notes always say “Directed by Murray A. Lightburn” rather than the standard “written by.” With that said, hopefully you’ll understand why saying that Degeneration Street is the Dears’ most straightforward-rocking album yet is a somewhat disappointing statement.

It’s as though this album is an attempt at aping successful music rather than just succeeding at what the band has always been good at for the past fifteen years. ”Stick w/ Me Kid” is an absolute knock-the-walls-down rocker the likes of which U2 keep trying to recreate, with crunchy guitars, pounding snares, and the well-distanced howling chorus “I will run ’til there’s nowhere left to run. I will love ’til there’s no one left to love.” “Yesteryear” continues the recent indie rock trend of looking at 60′s and 70′s pop for inspiration, complete with a surf rock beat, single-note synth drones to fill space and absolutely unnecessary vocal reverb that would make Phil Spector blush. “Unsung” seems to almost rip off Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” in composition, form and intent. It’s just shy of imitation, but Murray’s voice seems to be the one ingredient that has remained consistent throughout, vague lyrics about debilitated relationships and all.

Yes, while Degeneration Street makes it easier than ever to tap your toe or hang your head with it’s consistent tempos and large, harmonized choruses, it largely lacks the very feature that drew so many fans to the Dears in the first place: cinematics. The big moments, like “Lamentation” and “Omega Dog” are too big. Were you to imagine a scene from a movie set to this music, you would quickly lose focus because the music was just too damn loud to notice whatever Ethan Hawke was slipping into his leather suitcase. More than ever, it seems, Lightburn wants to share his words rather than emotions as the vocals are frequently the most powerful element in the songs packaged here, often distractingly so. Not a single track on the album tops 5:30 — most sticking close to the four-minute mark — upsetting for those of us who’d grown rather accustomed to seven-minute suites the likes of “There is No Such Thing as Love,” “No Return,” “Protest” and “Postcard from Purgatory” (from the Dears’ first four releases, respectively). Degeneration Street still has it’s slower moments and aggressive rock-outs, but they are self-contained rather than connected emotional breakdowns, and that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to creating a powerful connection between a listener and a song.

The Dears were right to call their music “Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique” in the early aughts, but the shimmer has faded along with the romance. The Dears of 2003 could tell us so much more with a stuttering violin, a humming melodica, or a loosely strung acoustic guitar than Degeneration Street ever could. I suppose every director has that one film that came from a bad place and they’d rather forget so they can move on to better things. In that regard, Degeneration Street is the Dears’ Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; it’s only a bad album when you know what you’re comparing it to.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.