Sure, Coldplay sold almost 750,000 copies of their new album X&Y in its first week, but when you've got critics labeling you "the most insufferable band in the world," like Jon Parales of the N.Y. Times did, you're entering Britney territory. And while that's fine for major label fatcats and stardom-seeking bands, the world of indie rock simply won't sacrifice artistic integrity for fat wallets.
As predictable, formulaic bands like Britain’s Coldplay dominate the charts, The Dears offer a remedy. Consider them the Morrissey to Coldplay's Dave Matthews.
Lead singer, songwriter and self-proclaimed director of the band is singer Murray Lightburn, whose pipes can propel his voice from a mid-range falsetto to a creamy baritone within a word. His admiration for Morrissey, former frontman of iconic '80s Brit rock group The Smiths, is obvious – sometimes blatantly, as cadences and melodies in “Lost In The Plot” reek of Mozzer's warbly, vocal up-and-downs – but Lightburn is able to diffuse copy charges by engulfing his voice in a tsunami of sound.
“Not a lot of bands have as many keyboards, so it’s very keyboard heavy, and all the while with two guitar players, so there’s a full-on assault of sound,” Lightburn said.
It’s these moments, when Lightburn’s voice recedes from dominant force to pawn in a musical game of chess, where The Dears are at their most enthralling. Organs and keyboards that are churchy one moment and ballpark ballyhoo the next will send The Dears’ songs coasting, all the while carrying Lightburn’s voice as they dip and dive all over the map.
Lightburn said it’s not only the amount of instruments, but the ethnic mishmash of his band that adds to its sound.
“We’re a pretty diverse group of people. Most bands are made up of a bunch of white folks and maybe they’ll throw a girl in there for good measure. We’ve got two girls, I’m black… we’re very diverse,” Lightburn said.
In fact, a handful of indie rock bands on the scene right now boast black lead singers, among them: Block Party, TV On the Radio and 90 Day Men.
But color means nothing when it's coming out of speakers, and The Dears know their sound is what defines them and sets them apart. Take, for example, “Expect the Worst/Cos’ She’s A Tourist,” which adds tinges of Middle Eastern strings and ends in a flurry of saxophone and trumpet. The band can also get bluesy, like when “Pinned Together, Falling Apart” goes from a squalor of Lou Reed-esque feedback to the chimes of a maniacal merry-go-round with the late Elliott Smith as conductor. In “Never Destroy Us,” Lightburn casually lifts a horn loop from rapper Dr. Dre for a portion of the song, switching to a screamy punk shoutalong by the climax.
It's this sassy audacity to mix and match sounds that has promoters scrambling to book them for summer festivals, where they'll be playing everywhere from London to Denmark to New York's Siren Festival in Coney Island.
But whatever you do, don’t tell Lightburn he sounds just like Morrissey — or anyone else, for that matter.
“Sometimes you read that we’re ripping off of Morrissey in a negative way,” Lightburn said. “Other people say it sounds cool and it sounds like the The Smiths. Ultimately, we’re not here to sound like The Smiths or Morrissey. We’re not that kind of band.”
“A lot of things that happen musically in the band are very organic. None of our songs sound the same,” he added.
While indie rock is often laced with male singers embracing what are considered feminine feelings of distrust or yearning to love, like, say, The White Stripes, The Dears actually have a high percentage of women in the band, adding a checks-and-balance to any patricentricity or machismo that may wriggle its way into the songs.
“It’s good that we have that kind of estrogen balance. Having two chicks really helps,” Lightburn said.
According to Lightburn, being from Canada – Montreal, to be exact – also gives The Dears an ethnic edge over many of their American counterparts.
“Coming from Canada, our perspective up there is pretty observant. We’re in America or England or India. There’s not a whole lot going on, so you can stand back and observe the world. I feel like maybe there’s an ever-so-slight chance that we have the opportunity as artists up there to be objective. At the same time, we can also just be (expletive) boring, and that happens — a lot. Not with us, but with other bands, of course.”
But don’t take that as Lightburn taking political sides in any way, something he says he’ll never infuse into his music.
“I find getting too specific on any level, it’s not what people want. If there’s too many political references and no other content, you start excluding people. Your belief is going to clash with someone else’s. We just want to make music.”
And while Lightburn’s desire to make music is his internal engine, touring and the road has left his bodily and mental fuel tank running on fumes, a message that comes through with the gentleness of a sledgehammer.
“I’m absolutely, utterly (expletive) fed up with touring. The only thing I do have to look forward to is the actual show itself. Everything around it — the traveling, the interviews, no offense to you, the constant moving around like a fugitive, the intineraries, having to be somewhere all the time — it’s killing me and I just want to go home.”
Right now for Lightburn, life truly seems to be just like Morrissey said -- "Every day is like Sunday… Every day is silent and grey." But with a baby on the way and a touring break on the horizon, Lightburn will have plenty of time to kick back in Canada to be observant, lazy… whatever his love-torn heart so desires.