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Le Fly Pan Am / The Beans - N'écoutez Pas / Bassplayer

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Artist: Le Fly Pan Am / The Beans

Album: N'écoutez Pas / Bassplayer

Label: Constellation

Review date: Sep. 30, 2004

Many American bands liken themselves to Godspeed You! Black Emperor by way of self-promotion. None have pulled it off beyond the one-sheet. Some make the comparison because their songs are overlong, others because they have a violin or cello in the band. A few are right insofar as they also play slow-building, tense guitar-based instrumentals, but they still betray their American poseurdom one way or another. Sounding like a Canadian post-rock band is best left up to the Canadians, and we need only look to the sprawling complex of member-sharing and strangely named bands on labels like Constellation and Alien8 for proof. The Canadian groups in the nebulous post-rock genre tend to be more instrumentally diverse and more structurally minimal than the others, but, to a greater extent than any other region, they have cultivated a distinct and reliable collective sound that seldom resembles the work of anyone else.

So, ironically enough, while the Americans clamor for the "R.I.Y.L. GY!BE" label, the Canadians can't seem to avoid it. As it goes when any scene becomes strongly and identifiably regional, the burdens can outweigh the benefits: if you're expected to sound more or less the same as your neighbors, you either go out of your way to shatter the stereotype or lose points right away for not doing so. The latest releases from The Beans and Le Fly Pan Am, two Canadian bands who have historically sounded very much Canadian, suggest that maybe the consistency of the country-specific brand has become somewhat oppressive. (Interestingly, both bands only recently added the articles at the beginnings of their respective names, a tactic already popularized by Godspeed's exclamation point shift and A Silver Mt. Zion's tendency to modify their name with every release, although The Beans may well have added their "the" as the result of a territorial scuffle with the Anti-pop Consortium frontman of the same name.) Both groups literally sound like they're up against insurmountable expectation, and, while they respond in different ways, the resulting albums leave something comparable to be desired.

Bassplayer is the fifth album of unhurried, atmospheric, and vaguely spacey almost-rock from Vancouver quintet The Beans. By and large it stays true to their older work, most familiarly in the swirls of delay-heavy guitar and lazy percussion that fill out most of the songs. Still, if The Beans have never veered too far from the long-winded instrumental norm, older albums like Inner Cosmosis and Crane Wars at least branched out to relatively diverse points of comparison — Múm, The Landing, Labradford — whereas Bassplayer's influences seem exclusively domestic. The dreamy guitar play on "May 6th Expires" and the charming "Galuda" immediately calls to mind Toronto's Do Make Say Think, while sparser moments like "Number Four" invoke the quieter Godspeed offshoots like Molasses or Esmerine. The comparison to Godspeed themselves, though predictable, is completely warranted, especially in the gathering storm at the end of "My Love Is A Rhinestone Infused Dodecahedron," whose punctuated drum rolls and orchestral harmonies are heavily reminiscent of almost all of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven.

That song, and in fact much of the album, is fairly lovely, but it's nothing that hasn't been done before — and it's this feeling more than any other that drags Bassplayer down. By its own right, it's a well-made and likable record, probably even the best the Beans have made yet, but it's difficult to accept without thinking of its many precedents from the same scene. Those already familiar with the Constellation crowd should find it lacking compared to, say, Skinny Fists or Do Make Say Think's most recent album. The curse is that Bassplayer is in a way dependent on its forebears for validation, but using the Canadian canon as a context necessarily invites a comparison to the whole of its venerable history. One can hardly blame The Beans for not surpassing its peaks, but it's almost as hard to be moved by their efforts in light of what has already been done with the same musical ideas.

If Montréal's Le Fly Pan Am were confronted by the same pressures at the outset of making their third album, N'écoutez Pas, then their chosen road was the one that led away from the aforementioned context entirely. Unlike The Beans, FPA already share an explicit connection to the Constellation network in guitarist Roger Tellier-Craig, who also plays in Godspeed, and most of their early history fits in with that aesthetic all too well. Their 1999 self-titled debut was typical of the sort of minimalism practiced by groups like Set Fire To Flames (another GY!BE tentacle) and earlier Do Make Say Think — 10-minute-plus pieces building atmospheric noise with impossible patience over the same chord progressions. Their more recent albums, especially 2002's Ceux Qui Inventent N'ont Jamais Vécu, kept the minimalism at base but brought out the noise (without bringing out much of the funk, alas) to more prominent and experimental effect.

With N'écoutez Pas, however, they've entirely abandoned the idyllic minimalism that once tied them to the Constellation scene in favor of a full-on mess of abrasive psych-noise, and created what must be the most accurately titled album in the label's history. As admirable as it is that Tellier-Craig and company are striking out past the regional stereotype, the point is significantly weakened in that the album is nearly unlistenable; though capitalizing on everything excessive and irritating about other Constellation albums is, in theory, a new direction for old ideas, it's not one that seems worth exploring. Spliced and jumbled voices (repeating "Le Fly Pan Am" as often as not), sharp intakes of breath, and reasonably frequent screaming abound over repetitive but chaotic guitars, organs, and drums. Quality musical themes are introduced from time to time, especially in "Vos Rêves Revers" and the opener "Brûlez Suivant, Suivante!" but a certain psychedelic entropy ultimately swallows everything in grandiose washes of hideous sibilance and disarray.

The album's production, noisier and live-er than ever before, calls to mind the reverb-laden side of Broken Social Scene (also from Toronto) and is probably the worst aspect of the album. Even if not for the numerous shorter tracks consisting of grating noise collages (including one that sounds like a Steve Albini recording of somebody chewing peanut brittle for two minutes), there might have been enough studied, meticulous development to keep N'écoutez Pas on course, especially in its twin 11-minute cacophonies, "Autant Zig-Zag" and "Très Très 'Retro.'" As it stands, though, there's too much junk on the surface to make delving deeper any fun at all.

While these two albums hardly encompass all that's going on in the myriad corners of Canadian instrumental music, there must be something telling in their formal and/or figurative ties to the hub of this particular scene. The Beans have gravitated toward its trademark sound, seemingly organically, while Le Fly Pan Am have had to make a wholly terrible record in order to escape it. Maybe Canadian post-rock has just reached a critical mass, whereby every spacey long-form instrumental is bound to sound like something a Constellation band has already done, or maybe it's just been a bad year for the community. Only time will tell.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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