October 10, 2009

The Most Serene Republic … of Motown?

Quick: What do Sergei Rachmaninoff and Diana Ross have in common? The Most Serene Republic think the two are musical equals worthy of the same pedestal, so much so that these critically-acclaimed artists from Toronto spend the entirety of their latest album, … And the Ever Expanding Universe, trying to convince the listener of this absurd corollary. They don’t come close to successfully defending the assertion; instead, they provide yet another example of artistic hubris – or, more accurately, laziness.

Allow me to backtrack for the uninitiated. TMSR (who derive their name from the Most Serene Republic of Venice) first caught my attention last year with Phages, an experimental EP of sorts that preceded what, in my view, was one of the best releases of the decade: 2007’s Population, a veritable indie rock opera which Rachmaninoff himself would’ve been proud to inspire. And according to TMSR’s Ryan Lenssen, he actually did:

“If you go back to people like Rachmaninoff, and Schoenberg, and Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, those guys all knew how to create a mood and intensity, and I don’t think it’s really something that you can get from a lot of modern music. So it’s necessary to go back and search through history for arguably the most talented and most genius musicians of all time.”

How TMSR decided on Ms. Ross as their next line of historical demarcation is puzzling – especially in light of Population‘s brilliance. The impetus may lie with the always ambiguous internal band turmoil.

The National Post reported that TMSR nearly broke up after returning from extensive touring in 2008 (the departure of prolific drummer Tony Nesbitt-Larking – supposedly of his own volition – was ominous), with Lenssen fearing, “if things didn’t change, it felt like we’d end up on fire or else laid out on the side of some ditch.” (That scenario would have been literal irony for vocalist Emma Ditchburn.) They eventually ended up in the studio with producer Dave Newfeld, who prodded them to make a more “soulful” record.

I don’t much mind TMSR or anyone else exploring new avenues. The danger, of course, is the potential compromising of identity. But TMSR have gone a good bit further. They’ve not only compromised it for the sake of “change”; they’ve completely disowned it:

“… there was, however, a conscious effort by the band to make some kind of musical departure—a direction that, on paper any way, seems implausible for the Most Serene Republic.

‘I said I want a record that sounds like the Association,’ Lenssen reveals. ‘I want it to sound like Motown, like Diana Ross and the Supremes, because indie-rock is done; that sound was pretty much 2002-2005.'”

This kind of indolence under the guise of experimentation is as irrational as it is repugnant, and would have Rachmaninoff spinning in his grave. It also roundly contradicts what Lenssen previously espoused:

“If you’re in Cologne, and you see that big cathedral in Cologne that took 300 years to build, you couldn’t get them to do that for money. You need God. Or you need something — you need something that’s bigger to get people to spend their entire lives working on this project and die for this enormous, almost grotesque kind of piece of architecture. And that takes a real focus and a real dedication. Not a sacrifice, but a full want and longing to create something that’s much larger than you are. And I think that’s what this band is for us.”

I lament Lenssen’s about-face from this geniune sentiment. TMSR is the personification of indie rock, a timeless genre (like Rachmaninoff’s) with virtually limitless possibilities. Duplicating their previous masterpiece would have required a “focus and dedication” clearly absent from … And the Ever Expanding Universe. As far as I can tell, TMSR’s universe is now an alternate one.

(Clips from interview by MolesClub)

UPDATE: TMSR’s Adrian Jewett admits the band was “nearly not as hard on ourselves and each other as we were before” during the making of … And the Ever Expanding Universe, confirming an apathetic approach. And if that makes some of their fans unhappy, Lenssen’s response is, in essence, a most serene “f**k you.”