reviewed by Chris Matei
A question for you, dear reader: what is the “west coast sound?” Is it the sound of acoustic guitars gathered around a beach bonfire? The sound of a high-def camera zooming over a lush Pacific treescape, IMAX-style? The immensely varied, college-tested alternative-pop stylings that sit on spectra from baroque to intellectual to brash to experimental?
Towers and Trees certainly have a geographic claim to being standard-bearers for the archetype. The band hails from Victoria, BC, and their latest record, the almost redundantly titled The West Coast, was produced in the misty island nook of Nanoose Bay by local Alex Aligizakis, whose work with bands like We Hunt Buffalo and Bend Sinister has found much critical acclaim in the province’s music scene.
And to be sure, West Coast is a fantastic-sounding record. There’s a cinematic sense of scope and scale to much of the album, a bright and clear energy that comes through in the drawling country-rock melodies, rich acoustic guitars, smooth vocals and wide open rock drum sounds, the compelling use of arpeggios and chord shifts to create motion, and the way each song’s chorus seems to arrive with the invigorating swell and impact of a crashing whitecap. There are stylistic nods to everything from Big Wreck to Dire Straits to John Butler Trio to John Mayer to Jack Johnson, especially in the diverse guitar arrangements. Harmonies on songs like “West Coast Man” and “We’re Not Islands” shimmer and intertwine with genuine intimacy.
That being said, what The West Coast does so well in terms of its sonic construction, it undoes, to a certain extent, with its approach to theme and feel. There are not one but two songs that remind us exactly where we’re supposed to be on this record – the aforementioned “West Coast Man” and “West Coast / Tide II.” Frontman Adrian Chalifour has constructed such a panoply of metaphors about waves and mountains, crossings and islands, tides and so on, that the record soon feels as though it leans too hard on a particular free-spirited, rockin’ yet wholesome set of lyrical and musical tropes that it believes ought to define “coastalness.” Songs that initially inspire awe by soaring into huge choruses and whoa-ing uplifts on the album’s first few tracks become predictable by mid-record, only to trade off for a few earnest meet-cute ballads with little in the way of substance.
There are songs that make for notable exceptions to this observation: they often correlate with the moments that Chalifour and his band decide to strip their style down and introduce subtle organic elements to the front of the mix. “Bad Heart” gets hugely appealing mileage from a dark, lovely, smokey groove, and album closer “Hearts on Fire” lets him and vocalist Andrea Lubberts trade genuinely moving lines over a beautiful duet of piano and cello. For such a sonically appealing record that positively drips with production values and careful attention to detail, The West Coast succeeds only when it lets listeners travel further into the deep woods than the postcard-perfect version of its aesthetic might suggest.
Top Tracks: “Hearts on Fire,” “Bad Heart,” “FREE”
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)