Last year was a good year for music, particularly for artists who put out quieter work. For example, Antony and the Johnsons and Andrew Bird keep the decibel level pretty low. Yet, in their own unassuming ways they still deliver some flashy work. Antony Hegarty’s voice can make your chest vibrate and Bird’s violin can swoop through a track and knock you over. These flourishes are part of their charm. But when an album isn’t afraid to maintain a low profile for its entire duration, it can be a welcome and unexpected surprise. Woodpigeon‘s Die Stadt Muzikanten is one such LP.
On its third full-length release, the Calgary-based band full embraces the calm sound of a folk-rock band with a slightly fuller sound-not surprising considering the band can have as many as a dozen musicians rotating through its lineup. The opening title track is blanketed in a turntable crackle that blankets frontman’s Mark Hamilton’s distant vocals. You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking your speakers are giving out if you stopped before the start of the second track, “Woodpigeon Vs. Eagleowl (Strength In Numbers)”, which glides in with gentle drums and a xylophone before letting the band’s breezy harmonies take over. Think of a less silly The Boy Least Likely To and you’ll get the tone of the whole album. Die Stadt Muzikanten doesn’t seem to have an overarching theme behind it, or at least not one readily discernible via lyrics. Instead, the midtempo rhythms carry the album for its full 16 tracks and yet it never feels cumbersome.
The albums highlights are the tracks that are on the cusp of shifting into a new energy level, yet they don’t. “Empty-Hall-Sing-Along” is as catchy as the title suggests, only it holds itself back from being a raucous “Sweet Caroline” for the indie scene. Hamilton sings the refrain of “I don’t care if we make it there/I won’t be alone for long/And I’m leaving soon, though I don’t have room/and I’m so damn sorry love” as a bittersweet pep talk to himself rather than an empowering anthem, which stays true to the titular empty hall.
“Duck Duck Goose” taps into a similar vein but pushes Hamilton’s voice to the front of the mix, which is a welcome change. For most of the album he seems to be at the same level as the music, which sounds perfectly fine, but on “Duck Duck Goose” you can finally hear the inflections and imperfections of his voice. One of the drawbacks of indie rock is that vocalists can sound too indifferent to their lyrics, so hearing Hamilton quiver on a few lines feels fresh and honest.
On “…And As The Ship Went Down, You’d Never Looked Finer” (a title fit for The Decemberists if I ever heard one), Woodpigeon shows off some of the album’s most interesting orchestration and harmonies. On paper, a winding violin, echoing drums, escalating falsettos, and haunting piano sound overbearing, but on the record they form one of the more intimate songs. Gradually each layer comes together with more intensity until each musician nearly overpowers each other and finally pulls back and only the sparse piano remains.
Die Stadt Muzikanten isn’t an album so original it will make you reevaluate music as you know it. It’s an album that’s comfortable slipping under the radar and embracing its influences. You can hear everyone from The Beatles to Olivia Tremor Control to Sufjan Stevens in this release, and still Woodpigeon sounds like itself. When the execution is as good as this, you can focus on the final product and forget about trying to be on the cutting edge of a new genre. In some ways, Woodpigeon’s greatest accomplishment is that Die Stadt Muzikanten sounds like it came from a group who achieved exactly what it wanted and didn’t try to cater to its fan base or critics. Self-assuredness never sounded so calm.
Die Stadt Muzikanten