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CD Review: Chemical City by Sam Roberts

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First a musical pet peeve. Back in the late-sixties/early-seventies, Montréal and pretty much the rest of Québec greeted a musical style with open arms while the rest of North America kept its head turned. It was the progressive sound of incredibly gifted bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Emerson Lake and Palmer. The existing bands today still sell out venues.

I remember seeing ELP a few years back and the room was filled with corporate dinosaurs tripping out to big Montreal Gold joints like they were kids again and for a good reason. Emerson played Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue” FROM THE OTHER SIDE of the keyboard and used his trademark knife to hold down keys on a B3 organ. Palmer isn’t a drummer, he’s a percussionist, he deserves such a title, and he elevates drums to a level that is unparalleled. At other concerts I witnessed guitar God Steve Howe perform and that was something that a guitar fan cannot deny nor forget: Howe is simply the best modern guitarist of our era. Québécois’ just fell in love with the sound, the atmosphere and Montréal quickly became the gateway of Progressive Rock music for North America.

The sound that flipped us out the most was the B3 organ and this is where my pet peeve comes in. It’s been 40 years of Québec-based music that is snowed under with B3 organ music. Enough already! Find something else to make your music sound cool and nostalgic of the seventies. Enough with wanting those days back. As much as I’d love to travel back in time and see Led Zeppelin in concert during their salad days, it’s just not gonna happen so this is a message to Québec musicians and aspiring rock stars, give it up, for crying out loud, just give it up, it’s over, it’s been done and redone and re-chewed and spat out so many times in the past 40 years that it becomes an irritant. The B3 does not need to be present in every freaking single cut and released. This applies to Sam Roberts also.

Sam Roberts’ new album, Chemical City has been released and heralded by some critics across Canada as the best album of the year. I don’t know about that but I certainly wasn’t impressed. It’s not bad, but it’s not memorable either. This was my first foray in Sam Roberts land after hearing George from The Hour plug the album before interviewing Roberts. The little video snippet showed Sam rocking on stage and it gave a good impression. So I had to find out what the hype was all about.

The music is definitely nostalgic of the seventies sound, with all the right guitar arrangements and of course the ever annoying B3 organ (or a similar sounding keyboard), even if it’s in the background, just hearing it sends shivers of generic unoriginality up my spine. But no instrument seems to stand out of the music, most of the album sounds like they recorded a jam session. Sam’s voice either isn’t singular. It’s perfect for the sound but it ends there.

The whole album sounds quite right for classic rock stations but in the attempt to make a seventies sound they forgot an important aspect that is quite complex to elucidate and accomplish. Back then, all you needed to immediately recognize a tune and send a discharge of dopamine in your brain, was the first or second cord, that first twang that recalls the song to memory and fills you with anticipatory giddiness for the rest of the song. It just doesn’t happen on this album.

But instead they try an old trick, which is give the song an ethereal, surreal sound during the intro, then drop that sound completely and hit the guitars and fast paced drums. What’s the point? Why not run with that mystical sound and unfold it? What are you afraid of? And the album is pretty much that. Sam Roberts sounds like he wants to go somewhere, but he’s afraid to take the leap. Instead we get regular unmemorable music that does nothing for the heart.

It’s getting to be a rare event when I pop in a CD and get swept away by the music, that it emotionally carries me, makes my heart swell, my eyes water, makes me want to scream; by its smart creative force, particular voice, kick-ass use of instruments.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh because there are a few good songs on this album; “Mystified, Heavy” and the jammy “An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay” which was catchy and inspired. Otherwise, this album could play well at a local battle of the bands, but definitely needs some work and polishing. It doesn’t have a sound that years from now you’ll remember when it came out and that for a while it was the soundtrack of your season. It’s just another album from just another band. It’s not the cherry on the sundae the critics make it out to be.

I give it a broken B3 outta 5.

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About David Desjardins

  • Vern Halen

    I kinda like the single (“The Gate”), but I’m afraid you might be right – there’s more sound than substance here. I really want to like Sam Roberts, but I’m not convinced he has all the pieces assembled correctly yet. Maybe the next one will be the mother of all rock albums.

    Never thought about the B3 = Quebec rock dilemma – this obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, but to me much of Quebecois hard rock bands sound like a mixture of Offenbach or Pagliaro.

  • chad

    Wicked Album… wicked band… wicked sound….. wicked everything.