Monday, October 18, 2010

Groovy Hooks: Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black

I’m a sucker for musical hooks be they guitar licks, trippy bass lines, or vocal gymnastics. In most music I listen to today, no matter what genre, just to hear one of these hooks would be enough for me to consider a whole album. But Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black, on the Indie label Arts&Crafts, has all three going for it making it one of the freshest pop records of the year. No drudgery, or moody revelations typical of a lot of independent bands out of Canada, Small Sins is about pop music in its purest form: bright, positive, filled with appealing grooves (and all under 4 minutes).

Small Sins is led by Thomas D’Arcy, the bass player and principal songwriter for this group from Toronto. His work has been called “wistful chamber pop … [as if] Jack White had a crush on Kraftwerk.” This is the third album from the band and it’s got everything you want from a so-called chamber pop band: up tempo R&B dance tunes and delicate synth-pop ballads with a lot of charm.
The record opens with the title track featuring a string quartet laying down a Motown groove a la Marvin Gaye. The trippy bass line draws you in immediately until the dirty drums kick in like a tribute to the sounds of the street rock that today emanates from Toronto and the UK. This track is followed up by a more aggressive rap beat featuring K-OS on a song called, "Déjà vu." There are a ton of pop songs with the same title, but this one is maybe more of a joke on D’Arcy’s knack for repeating a familiar, yet original, rap beat hook. It works musically in spite of the title.

Pot Calls Kettle Black then takes an interesting turn. Just as you thought it was going in one direction, the band kicks in, again, with the dirty drums and a synth ditty featuring a catchy 10 note phrase repeated. It sounds a little like The Cure, but that’s okay. Everybody sounds like everybody else these days. In fact, part of this record’s charm is its deliberate use of familiar instrument sounds and their application. That is, taking familiar keyboard sounds and incorporating them into a freshly conceived composition. It’s not easy to compose songs such as “Never Again” without being derivative in some way, or even sampling another artist. But this song, with its “Never ever ever again” refrain, is an infectious vocal hook. By track five, Pot Calls Kettle Black turns again to a more reflective set of tunes starting with the cosmic-sounding “You Will Lie.” It opens with an acoustic guitar supported by splashes of synthesizer and piano. With the heavier downbeat of “Til I Go Home,” the album makes another abrupt turn with a guitar-lick sounding like something from the nineties. This is particularly true on “Where’s There Gold,” a delightful tune featuring a steady beat dressed up with acoustic guitar, a string quartet, and a vocal that pulls you along.

Yet the album then slows down to a crawl on the dream pop song, “Everything You Need.” Clearly D’Arcy is inspired by what he’s heard in the past, namely Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” His song soaks up that influence without ever copying the source. “Everything You Need” is a well-crafted song from beginning to end. Pot Calls Kettle Black closes with the very dream-like “Tonight” featuring a heavy beat typical of today’s bands like Coldplay. It’s a moody piece, to say the least, but it’s still trying to inspire hope.

Pop music needs more albums like this one especially when they are so beautifully arranged. The use of a real string quartet on five of the tracks, for instance, lifts the whole record skyward. In the end, the sequencing of Pot Calls Kettle Black perfectly defines a journey from one place to another - a journey where we arrive safely at our desired destination.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

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