Does it diminish a musician’s accomplishments to view them through his or her place of origin?  Does the prism of the “hometown” assign the stigma of parochialism or, worse, artistic failure, implying that the musician never got out of the minor leagues, or never wanted to?

Consider how we don’t find it fundamentally necessary to know where the “truly great” artists come from.  We don’t understand, say, David Bowie or Keith Richards primarily their local origins.  Yes, they were children of the suburbs and provinces, perhaps, but these places’ identities (Bromley, Dartford) and qualities are fairly incidental and transcended by the non-local inspirations and global impacts of the music they made at their prime.  If we’re interested in the geography of their work, it’s usually to mark the place of inspiration in a peripatetic career: Bowie’s Berlin albums, the Stones’ recordings in Richards’ tax exile home on the coast of France.

Beyond a historian’s documentary interest, what’s there to be learned from contextualizing a band within the place where it formed and rose to prominence?   This is the question begged and not adequately answered by Lorraine Carpenter’s The Dears: Lost in the Plot (Invisible, 2011).  91 pages in length, the book is basically an extended feature article on the Dears, the vastly underrated and unfairly overlooked legends of Montreal indie-rock.  Through interviews with members past and present, Carpenter provides a convincing narrative about the band’s musical triumphs and career frustrations.  But she further proposes that the Dears’ story is also a story about musical Montreal:

The Dears are as good a band as any Canadian act of the aughts.  But why didn’t they get the glory?  Being “ahead of the curve,” as Lightburn said, or simply victims of bad timing.  The hype behind the band, particularly in North American, peaked just prior to the rise of social media and blogs, before online trumpeting could propel a band as far as it can today.  Perhaps that why, when the Montreal scene was being feted in a succession of major publications, their name was usually absent—the only organization to shine the spotlight on The Dears in a Montreal-scene piece was CBC’s The National, Canada’s nightly news show (pg. 8).

So the stakes have been raised: how can the Dears—their biographies, aspirations, and music—be understood in the context of Montreal?  Unfortunately, The Dears: Lost in the Plot doesn’t really develop many insights about the group’s relationship to their city of origin.  However, it does offers some provocative material for such a project —or, rather, it sketches out what this material might look like—almost despite Carpenter’s best intentions.

By highlighting such shortcomings, let me make clear at the onset that I’m not here to fault Lorraine Carpenter for failing to write a different book.  That’s a cheap form of criticism, and it dismisses what the author brings to the table (and what Invisible Publishing is trying to do with the slim volumes it releases).  Furthermore, I’ll happily gobble up any lengthy treatise on the Dears, and Lost in the Plot works well as a documentation of the group’s career and a critical review of their work.  A Montreal journalist, Carpenter has known the band personally for a long time, she’s very familiar with their recordings (including the very early ones that are maybe best overlooked), and she’s not afraid to call it like she sees it in their typically brilliant yet inconsistent body of recordings.  (I for one appreciate her advice to skip the first four tracks on Gang of Losers; a false start, these songs betray the Dears’ Britpop influences a little too earnestly in their anthemic, swing-for-the-bleachers stylings, postponing the band’s more interesting aesthetic development until track #5.)

More to the point, the Dears needn’t be listened to or understood as a “Montreal group” first and foremost.  Really, in my book they’re not even a “Canadian group,” just a great band.  But by pushing at the urban/local angle that Carpenter uses to document the Dears, I want to use this review to think about some questions of inquiry and methods for analyzing musical urbanism.


An appreciation

To begin, hands up for folks who’ve given the Dears a few listens…  Not that many?  Okay, that’s simply unacceptable.

The Dears’ sound—dramatic, tuneful, majestic, witty, able to shoulder the burden of the listener’s own heartbreak and anguish—is probably best conveyed by the title of their 2001 EP, Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique.  Unlike some other ’00s groups around whom that category could loosely fit (Stereolab, Air), the Dears continued to evolve in musical scope and theme.  Perhaps that evolution hasn’t been quite as flashy as Pitchfork (whose coolness toward the Dears is notorious) and other music bloggers might like, but it has been uncontrived and hard earned.  In over fifteen years of operation, the Dears have produced five albums, two EPs and other recorded odds and ends characterized by remarkable musical and emotional substance. I find myself returning to these records again and again; each album is rewarding on its own and further comprises an fascinating career arc comparable to their influences—the Smiths/Morrissey, Suede, Pulp, and (I never see anyone mention this) Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry.  After today’s trends have faded into obsolescence five, fifteen, fifty years from now, I suspect the Dears’ music will still sound great.

The Dears probably garnered the most attention between 2003 and 2006, a period bookended by their astonishing breakthrough No Cities Left (one of the great albums of the last decade) and the Polaris Music Prize-nominated Gang of Losers.  Then, for a variety of personal and business reasons that this book chars, the band imploded down to the kernel of singer Murray Lightburn and keyboardist Natalia Yanchak, just as the media spotlight on Montreal shifted to Arcade Fire (Yanchak half-seriously calls AF frontman Win Butler an early Dears “cyberstalker”).  And, for many, that seems to close the book on the group, despite the fact that they put out two more really good albums.  Today, when they get any attention, the Dears are generaly summarized by one of three points:

  1. the singer sounds like a black Morrissey
  2. they’re that torchy, miserablist group fronted by a husband-and-wife duo
  3. they’re the Montreal band who never quite made it

The last point, undoubtedly the least trivializing of the three, in turn calls attention to the broader musical scene in Montreal.


So what’s so Montreal about the Dears?

If rock music is a genre that doesn’t particularly charge its performers to report on or identify with specific places, the ways that hip hop or maybe folk music might, then perhaps it’s perhaps a natural instinct to think about the “urban” aspects of a rock group by looking to the scene of local bands, musicians, venues, media and institutions that it comes from.  (Certainly, that’s the ready-made angle, by now a little tired, that the media has used to understand musicians coming from Montreal and Canada’s other major music cities).  Canada is a huge territory with almost one-third of its population concentrated in its three largest cities’ metropolitan area.  In that setting, the locations of musicians and other creatives won’t generally be accidental; patterns of migration, intermingling, and sharing of resources will fundamentally shape the creative milieu.  In Montreal, this dynamism extends back much further than the city’s current prosperity in the creative economy:

Of course Montreal is unique.  It’s the urban centre of a French province on an English and Spanish continent, with all the quirks, wonders and troubles that such a politically tense and culturally fruitful juxtaposition brings.  But in many ways, Montreal is also a typical North American city: a piece of land (an island) that was founded, settled and developed by conquerors and immigrants, one that’s famous for cultural touchstones that have flourished here, but originated in our old countries, sometimes by way of the superpower to the south.

In the late ’70s, the rise of nationalist fervour inspired a slow exodus of English-speaking (anglo) Montrealers that would last for two decades.  But once the threat of a separation from Canada subsided, taking the recession down with it, not only did native anglos stay put, but a segment of the steady influx of students from other provinces and countries began to plant roots.  Some of them formed bands, founded festivals or otherwise created and hustled to enrich the local art scene.

English musicians from these parts used to take their quest for a career to Toronto, the national hub of the music industry.  Now, it’s not uncommon to hear about bands relocating from their city to Montreal, to tap into the storied recording studios, live venues, hipster hangouts and cheap rents that fed the successes of the mid-aughts.

That scene remains small, and with 68 percent of the city being francophone, Québécois culture looms large.  But despite this, the past decade has given us a pack of anglo bands and a scene to be proud of, to the particular delight of pop music connoisseurs and indie-label patrons (pp. 5-6).

This promising overture notwithstanding, The Dears: Lost in the Plot is not the definitive book on the Montreal anglo indie-rock scene.  It’s not even close, really.  Montreal bands that Carpenter mentions are the most usual of suspects (Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, the Godspeed You! Black Emperor collective) and then only in the briefest of passing.  When Murray Lightburn is reported to have enticed guitarist Patrick Krief back into the Dears in 2009 by praising the latter’s band—”When I heard the Black Diamond Bay record, I wish I had been a part of it”—and the reader has by this point no idea who Black Diamond Bay is (they even included another ex-Dears member, drummer George Donoso), you realize an opportunity has been lost to dive further into the constellation of Montreal bands and say a little more about their modes of/occasions for recombination.

Furthermore, Carpenter gives local francophone bands like Les Georges Leningrad, Pas Chic Chic and Les Breastfeeders only a tantalizing footnote.  In this case, Carpenter is up-front about her focus on Montreal’s anglo indie-rock scene.  But while that focus gives The Dears: Lost in the Plot a coherence of narrative, I can’t help but wonder why she had to strive for coherence at all.  Why not instead foreground the contradictory perspectives and ambitions of a scene’s participants, cliques, and neighborhoods?  The excellent oral history of the Germs illustrates how even the focus on a single band can entertain a multiplicity of local viewpoints and opinions.

A different urban angle might be to situate the Dears within an indigenous tradition of place-based culture and history.  In the case of Montreal, presumably such an argument could be drawn from the city’s famed cultural heterogeneity.  Wisely, Carpenter backs off from assessments of Montreal’s musical terroir, which are vulnerable to highly romanticized, overly simplistic claims about a place.

Interestingly, she reports that Lightburn employs such a Montreal rhetoric from time to time, usually to deflect  the charge that “he’s a black guy in a ‘white’ musical realm”:

Lightburn took pride in the band’s mixed heritage: “George moved here from chile when he was nine, Martin is as Quebec as it gets, au boutte, Natalia is a Pollack/Ukranian from a Pollack area of Toronto, Valérie is half American, Benvie is a straight-up Canadian white guy and I’m the son of immigrants from Central America,” he said.  (For the record, Krief is a Jew with roots in Morocco.) (pg. 61)

If, as this example suggests, urban(e) rhetorics are used to engage what are essentially non-urban issues (in this case, the unspoken racialization of indie rock), then does anything of sui generis relevance remain to the urban story of the Dears?  Is there anything gained by further barking up this tree?


The Dears and everyday life

In fact, The Dears: Lost in the Plot hints at another way of thinking about the urban context surrounding the Dears.  It comes at the very beginning of the book, in a preface entitled “Full Disclosure”:

I was 16 when I moved into the master bedroom in my parents’ apartment, a room previously inhabited by my older brother, and my older sister before him.  I vividly remember watching the video for “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths the night my family moved into the top floor of that triplex in 1985.  But not much Smiths was played on the turntable there; my musical education was dominated by my siblings’ records, mostly David Bowie, The Beatles, Roxy Music and The Velvet Underground, along with a range of questionable ’80s bands.

It was only in the ’90s, when I was a Suede fanatic, that I truly became enamoured with The Smiths.  And in that bedroom (in a beautiful old building, incidentally) I heard The Smiths not only on my stereo, but through the wall.

It was shocking to me then that someone else, someone right next door, was listening to this vaguely gay, English ’80s band in the era of Pearl Jam.  I know now that I was hardly alone, as young Britpop fans everywhere had found The Smiths the way I had, just as teenagers in the aughts took the cue from emo idols like My Chemical Romance or Fallout Boy (I’ve seen the homemade Smiths t-shirts to prove it).  Even on that one block in Montreal, there was a kindred spirit.  Years later, I found out that person was Murray Lighburn (pp. 1-2).

Here is a glimpse onto a real, tangible place, one that articulates both non-local contexts (adolescence, maybe a particular Canadian slant on Anglophilia) and local contexts (a racial-ethnic composition that made Lightburn “the one black guy at all the Britpop concerts” in Montreal) into a concrete spatial formation for the conduct of everyday life.  The scenario Carpenter describes could be played out in a number of places, yet the reader intuits it’s genuinely Montreal.  On the surface it’s a silly episode related from a 16-year-old’s vantage point, but were it developed into a coherent biographical arc that encompasses the Dears in their messy adult lives, it could form the basis for a very serious documentation and analysis of Montreal urbanism.

It’s disappointing but maybe not surprising that Carpenter backs away early on from this view into the Dears’ mundane relationship to Montreal.  To make their voice credible, journalists are supposed to stick to objective facts and not make themselves the subjects of their story, which are just what this episode appears to threaten; hence she invokes the journalistic duty of “full disclosure”, thereby dismissing this provocative nugget of data from serious analytical consideration.  (Subjectivity is legitimate, of course, when Carpenter shifts into the role as musical critic, a transition that her writing carries out rather seamlessly.)  Perhaps the lived experience that Carpenter shares with the Dears and other participants of the Montreal music scene is too close to even notice, much less analyze adequately.  Yet beneath the book’s musical history and critical review, windows onto Montreal urbanism appear everywhere, even in a passing reference to the difficulties of maintaining distance from her subjects:

Anglo Montreal is such a small town that no editor has ever accused me of being biased.  It’s as normal for local writers to know their subject personally or professionally, or at least be separated by very few degrees, as it is for my conversations with Murray to shift in and out of interview mode, on and off the record.  That’s how our friendship began (pg. 3).

Again, I don’t want to criticize Carpenter for not being a proper ethnographer, which would be just as unfair as slamming her for not writing a different book than the one she did.  But her subjective relationship is the most promising lead that Carpenter has into a greater understanding of the Dears’ Montreal urbanism, whatever that might be.  Given the proper analytical treatment, subjectivity transcends gossip or personal opinion (if we want to give the authors’ nemeses those names) to become the window onto everyday life, musical or otherwise.