I’m off my rocker. An Aural Impressions piece for an entire band? Surely I’ve left off an album or single title here, no? Nope. I thought it was time to review an entire band’s discography from their outset to the present. I chose Canadians Our Lady Peace specifically because they were at one time one of my absolute favorite bands. I say were because the band that was (pictured above) doesn’t exist anymore. I still love their music (at least some of it) but the numerous stylistic and member changes warrant a breakdown of their entire career, in my opinion. So, without further ado, here we go…
Naveed, 1994: The debut. I was four when this came out. I may have heard “Starseed” at some point on the Canadian rock radio that occasionally played out of my parents’ car speakers but I consciously don’t remember. This album is basically Canada’s answer to grunge, I guess. It’s for the most part straight guitar-driven rock. Led by singer Raine Maida’s gritty, powerful vocals, Naveed is a solid mid-90s record. Production effects are almost non-existent. Guitar effects are somewhat varied, with guitarist Mike Turner opting mostly for heavy distortion, though he intersperses the occasional clean electric flanger and acoustic six-string. The real star of the album is drummer Jeremy Taggart, who was 18 at the time of this recording. Along with Maida’s still-developing vocal style, I credit Taggart with being responsible for much of what I consider Our Lady Peace’s “sound.” The quartet is rounded out by the bass playing of Chris Eacrett, who provides some terrific undulating undercurrents for the band, including the standout riff from the title track, though this would be his only recorded appearance with the band. A lot Naveed’s songs sound pretty similar to each other, featuring similar crisp (perhaps too compressed) production and the common instrumentation described above. The swirling guitar effects and wild but controlled vocals that open closing track “Neon Crossing” foreshadow the first of many style changes for Our Lady Peace throughout the next twenty years.
Clumsy, 1997: The second album in the catalog opens with “Superman’s Dead,” which sits atop the list of my favorites. It’s immediately more varied in instrumentation than anything on Naveed, and Raine Maida’s trademark falsetto makes a hell of a re-introduction. New bassist Duncan Coutts leaves his mark in the post-chorus/bridge, filling up the lower frequencies with his oft-heard wandering flourishes. As the album moves forward, it rocks a bit less, distancing itself a bit more from Naveed. Added to the Our Lady Peace sound hereafter are keyboards and synth (piano on the title track and “4am”, effects on “Automatic Flowers,” “Carnival,” and “Let You Down”), not to mention a plethora of different guitar sounds. Mike Turner breaks out the tremolo on “Carnival,” a low-pass clean sound on “4am” that falls into the background, and far more acoustics than previously heard. Several tracks feature distortion-driven choruses reminiscent of Naveed, however the structures of the rest of the songs, chord progressions, instrumentation, even the vocals couldn’t be more divergent. The verses of “Car Crash” are mostly bass, with guitar and drums used very lightly. “Hello Oskar” is pushed along by a meandering guitar riff, while “Shaking” makes good use of grungy dissonance. Jeremy Taggart’s drumming shines here; not one regular rock beat to be heard throughout. Like Naveed, however, the production is a bit compressed, slightly tinny on the harder songs. This can be heard especially in the vocals, where dynamic range, despite the incredible abilities of Maida, are sonically limited.
Happiness Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch, 1999: This might be my favorite complete OLP album for sentimental reasons, but it’s also the pinnacle of their edgy, dark, synth- and effect-guitar-laden sound. Production is noticeably less compressed than previous albums, and this allows Maida’s unique vocals to soar above a tightly-knit instrumental. As a further progression of the band’s sound, Happiness… features atmospheric production effects throughout, adding to the surreal, sometimes claustrophobic sound. Where Maida’s range really begins to show for the band is during periods of light vocals, such as on “Thief” and the verses of the title track, setting aside grit and power for gentle crooning. Synths are in full force in the opening tracks, as well as Mike Turner’s distortion, delay, and dissonant effects. Rather than push the song along with chords, guitar riffs are ever more used, sometimes adding a necessary background component to Taggart’s intricate drum currents. Keyboards dot the silly homicidal stylings of “Annie,” while “Consequences of Laughing” shows off another undulating, meandering bass riff characteristic of Coutts. Happiness… closes with a prolonged outro featuring drumming from jazz musician Elvin Jones, solidifying the percussive jazz influence on Taggart and the band. Between opener “One Many Army,” and album centerpiece “Is Anybody Home?” it’s hard to pick a favorite. “One Man Army” is a gut-punch into the Our Lady Peace sound as I love it, whereas, “Is Anybody Home?” might be my go-to exemplar for the era. It erupts with a synth riff, switches into verses driven mainly by drums and bass, before breaking for a chorus featuring nothing but falsetto vocals and light guitar. This is OLP.
(Aside: this blog’s URL comes from a lyric in the title track of this album. It’s that important to me)
Spiritual Machines, 2000: A concept album inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines, this features several tracks featuring Kurzweil reading passages from the book, often accompanied by atmospheric effects or lead-in instrumentation for the subsequent track. But let’s ignore those; I rarely listen to them anyway. Spiritual Machines is like an upbeat companion to Happiness… Where Happiness… featured a few aggressive, almost violent songs like “One Man Army” and “Lying Awake,” Spiritual Machines is full of ballads revolving around personal relationships like “In Repair,” “Life,” and “Are You Sad.” The tone shift is reflected in Turner’s guitar, heard cleanly and chiming for the majority of the album, crunching occasionally, but far less than previous efforts. Keyboards make even more of an impact, appearing in the upper layers of songs like “Middle of Yesterday,” “Are You Sad?” and “If You Believe.” Taggart and Coutts are wonderful as usual; the closing few tracks especially standout for both. Where Happiness… was the pinnacle of their sound, Spiritual Machines is the apex of Raine Maida’s songwriting. It’s just another great, haunting album from OLP.
“The Wonderful Future” that closed Spiritual Machines was ironic. Because immediately thereafter, things changed for the not-wonderful. Forgive me if these next few blurbs sound a bit more negative than the ones above, I have my reasons which I’ll dive into in detail below. Mike Turner left the band (under disputed circumstances) and producer Arnold Lanni was ditched in favor of …ugh… Bob Rock. In an effort to sound more like every other American post-grunge band on the radio, Our Lady Peace released the following album:
Gravity, 2002: The first of the new-Our Lady Peace albums. The sound was a radical departure from their previous unique, spacey, yet edgy sound. It was more mainstream, less interesting. Coincidentally, their most successful, chart- and sales-wise. New guitarist Steve Mazur, while perfectly capable in his own way, contributed lackluster riffs and fairly standard heavy guitars to the tracks. This is compounded when heard alongside Jeremy Taggart’s drumming, which for some reason is way more straightforward than it was before. Of course, the biggest shift is heard in Maida’s vocals. The trademark falsetto is all but gone, which is a real tragedy. Seriously, listen to Happiness… and Gravity back to back if you want; it’s like it’s a completely different band. If I want to enjoy Gravity without crying at the loss of all of those things mentioned above, I have to compartmentalize these two sounds as such, otherwise it’s just too sad. But let’s humor that idea for a second. Gravity is not a bad album. Hell, in listening to it for this write-up, I’m casually singing along with hits “Somewhere Out There” and “Innocent” because I find myself wanting to. They’re catchy, they stick in the mind, and I’m sure that’s why they’re on there. When I saw Our Lady Peace live in 2009, I was dumbstruck by their awesome performance of “Not Enough,” which is already a strong track on the album. All it really needs, aside from less in-your-face guitar production, are more interesting drum beats and a return to falsetto vocals to pull it up. It’s still got Duncan Coutts bassing along and Mazur’s guitar sometimes sounds like Turner’s, at least in tone. It’s just different enough to be disconcerting. Unfortunately, things don’t get better.
Healthy In Paranoid Times, 2005: Here’s where we start to run into trouble. It opens with “Angels/Losing/Sleep,” which is a great song, bringing in falsetto, varied instrumentation, and more of a classic OLP feel, albeit a lot more laid back and acoustic. However, it’s all downhill from there. I don’t really know what to say here, because this album isn’t particularly interesting or memorable. There’s little atmosphere, little synth; it’s got a stripped-down sound, but it doesn’t rock like Naveed. Aside from debut single “Where Are You,” there’s almost no energy here. Taggart does go a bit retro with the drumming in “Wipe That Smile Off Your Face,” which is a nice breath of fresh air, yet the overly-political lyrics and lack of anything else interesting kill the good vibes. There are also the bizarre moments, such as “Boy” where it seems OLP are trying to sound like Joshua Tree-era U2, an imitation which would manifest again on the following album. Healthy… is definitely a cohesive work, both in the style of instrumentation and the lyrical themes. It’s just sad that it’s all rather mediocre.
Burn Burn, 2009: This was my album during the summer of 2009. It came out just after I saw the band live for the first (and probably only) time. The few songs I’d heard from it before it came out got my hopes up. The falsetto-hooked chorus of “Paper Moons,” the Clumsy-esque bridge of “Monkey Brains;” these were signs to me that the band was turning around. Raine Maida had even put out a solo album in the meantime, so maybe he’d gotten the acoustic/poetic influence over the band out of his system? Except what came was even more odd. Where at least Gravity and Happiness had some semblance of cohesion, Burn Burn is all over the place. Every other song is a ballad with a (relatively) quiet verse leading into a soaring stadium-filling chorus with no transition or build. I should note Maida doesn’t do soaring vocals anymore and tries to power through them with his regular register. I say tries because, and I hate to say it, he’s clearly not as capable a singer as he used to be. The production here is also weird. There are a lot of strange instruments used in odd places, like organs, dulcimers, and pianos upfront. It’s as though Our Lady Peace was grasping again for a new sound but couldn’t settle on one. The engineering on Burn Burn runs thin at points, hitting a low with the track “White Flags” which almost sounds like it was recorded in a garage. (Seriously, couldn’t get a second take on that, errrr?) However, there are definite high points on the album. The aforementioned “Paper Moons” is a pretty solid track that could almost almost fit onto Spiritual Machines, if it weren’t for a minute-long distorted guitar solo at the end and mundane lyrics. Likewise, “Monkey Brains” has a bridge that reeks of 1997 and elevates the rest of an average song above the others on Burn Burn. “Never Get Over You” suffers from compression, but the hook into the chorus is stronger than the other songs that attempt a similar bombastic style. “Escape Artist” delves back into Happiness…-style surreality with Maida’s light airy verses, except it’s stricken with another attempt at a stadium-sized chorus. Coming a long four years after Healthy…, Burn Burn was different, but still disappointing. I can definitely hear the band grasping at some former elements of their sound, but too often they’re shelved for an even more wildly differing direction.
Curve, 2012: In 2010, Our Lady Peace went on tour playing Clumsy and Spiritual Machines in their entirety. They said to expect old sounds from that era to wind up back into their music. At this point I’m full pessimist, and with raised expectations, they’d better deliver on that promise. Well, they weren’t entirely wrong; Curve features many a nod to effects and instrumentation heard prior to 2001. They’re just surrounded by sub-par music, forgettable lyrics, and disappointment. I really just don’t know what they’re going for anymore. None of these songs rock, they don’t have any energy or power behind them. They just seem tired. “Fire In The Henhouse” almost captures some of 1999’s edge in the synth, guitars, and rhythm, but loses it to loose, eroding vocals. “Heavyweight” has both bullhorn and falsetto vocals, yet the chorus pushes back into Burn Burn bombastic territory, a feeling completely retread on “If This Is It.” Centerpiece “As Fast As You Can” was the album’s flagship single, with its cheery hand-claps. I don’t like this sound, even for bands that aren’t OLP. At least the end of the album shows more promise, in my opinion. “Will Someday Change” is a quiet, clean-guitar and piano driven ballad with some interesting chords whose first half could fit alongside songs like “4am” and “Are You Sad,” …except it fizzles in its conclusion. “Find Our Way” reminds me of Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead, thanks to a “Myxomatosis”-inspired riff and a certain guitar tone. It’s an oddly structured piece of music that really shines in its second half when Steve Mazur is unleashed. Penultimate song “Rabbits” is a sparse, pad and bass-driven track featuring jazzy brushed drumming from Taggart. I appreciate the effort to bring this sound back though it’s somewhat underdeveloped. Album closer “Mettle” suffers a similar shortcoming. While I really enjoy the emotional finger-picked electric guitar, spine-chilling chord progression, and buried vocals, the song runs through with little variation. The album ends on an optimistic note tied to a minor chord, a fairly strong and poignant close.
It’s hard to stay objective with a band like Our Lady Peace when rose-colored glasses and years of built-up nostalgia tinge the first four albums of this collection, whilst the last four, most strongly the last two, simply leave a bad taste in my mouth in comparison. As noted above, I find myself unable to listen to anything put out by the group after 2002 without immediately comparing it to their best material, which is not a good mentality to have. Maybe it’s a sign of the inevitable, the inexorable march of time forward. We can’t go back; what was once great about this band is lost forever.
Indeed, another permanent alteration of the landscape came to the band after these last twelve years of mediocrity: original drummer and purveyor of the unique jazzy drumming style in rock music Jeremy Taggart left the band in June. Our Lady Peace, as it is currently, is almost dead to me. They’ve got a chance to redeem themselves, and I am ever forgiving if they put out a new record that rivals Spiritual Machines, but I fear this opportunity is totally lost without Taggart in the band…
I will be back on here with a piece for their upcoming album, yet to be titled or a date set for its release. I’ve heard the album’s opening single, aptly titled “Won’t Turn Back.”