So yeah, to overuse a common cliche, the drummer is almost certainly the backbone of any good live band. I know some people like to be contrarians and bestow this honour upon the bassist, but let’s be honest: that’s often just a consolation prize for never being heard and getting constantly overlooked. Don’t worry, diligent bassists. I still love you. But those drums… it’s hard to compare to a nice, taught set of tom toms.
But what happens when that backbone leaves the body to embark on his or her own and create a meaningful artist statement? If the backbone in question is named Lars Ulrich, just subtract the back off the beginning of bone and add a head to the end of it. And then brace for discomfort.
Luckily for us, bonehead Lars is nowhere in sight, and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Which brings us to…
Pick a Piper – Pick a Piper
Pick a Piper is the brainbaby of Brad Weber, drummer for the critically-acclaimed, Polaris-nominated Canadian artist Caribou. Now, when it comes to side-projects, I have the tendency to fall off the fence into the decidedly meh category. But from the album cover (What IS that anyway?? It looks like Dr Seuss’ venereal disease — in a good way!) to its opening sounds, it’s clear that we’re getting something unique and exciting.
Pick a Piper is a beat-enthusiast’s album, all the way through. Without the burden of a frontman’s ego to keep him in the spotlight, Weber has put together a full-on collaborative album, bringing in guest vocalists from the likes of Born Ruffians, Braids (my Canadian music crushes — and the reason that I knew my girlfriend was cool enough to date when she put on their album Native Speaker the first time I was at her place), and Ruby Suns. So the album is varied in terms of voices, but it’s the complex and beautiful drum patterns that tie the whole thing together.
If I could bestow a gerund on Pick a Piper — and I’m in control of this review, so why can’t I?? — it would be shimmering. In the best sense of the word. The percussion zooms around through the mix, sometimes glitchy and spastic, sometimes smooth and dream-like, but always outfitted with this sort of deliberate sparkling veneer. The voices are awash in reverb, blending in with the thick and varied synth noises throughout the album. The best guest vocals on the album come courtesy of Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids. Her turn in the song “Once Were Leaves” is hypnotic and binding, full of loops and echoes. Think Austra with a little more upper register.
One of Pick a Piper’s surprising strengths is incorporating and blending a brass section into the music. Yeah, we’ve been seeing a lot of the brass lately, with its mid-2000s explosion into indie rock, but I don’t think I’ve heard it utilized this well in electronic-slanting music before. The flute and brass sections in “South to Polynesia” are particularly delicious, verging at times on becoming free form jazz solos without (thankfully!!) quite reaching that point.
Altogether, Pick a Piper is a polished and mature artistic statement that sometimes even surpasses some of Caribou’s better work. You likely find similarities between Pick a Piper and Caribou, but that’s to be expected. But if there’s one bit of solid, bulletproof praise, it’s this: when I was playing this record around the house for my girlfriend, who I always, shamelessly, try to impress with my musical choices, stopped what she was doing, turned her head, and immediately said, “Whoa, who is this? I want it!”
Pick a Piper will be playing Nelson on June 26 in the Kootenay Coop Radio CJLY Basement. I’ve honestly never been in there and I have no idea what to expect. But, hey, as I always say, if it’s a jumpy and sweaty basement show in an unfamiliar location, count me in!
Eli is a Nelson-based writer, art instructor and musician. He blogs at eligeddis.com.