Lately it’s music from Canada that’s been interesting me; and most recently, taking their place alongside such disparate luminaries as Aaron Funk, Aidan Baker, Elsiane and Paul Dolden (about whom, in due course, much, much more), have been Dragonette, whose second album Fixin To Thrill came out earlier this month. Dragonette have been steadily forging their reputation over the last four years, beginning with one of the best debuts ever, the elusive but immaculate Dragonette EP, after which a clutch of singles and first album Galore have emerged, each revealing a group remarkably assertive and undeniably talented. To describe their music as ‘synthpop’ is to do them a disservice; eighties allusions come thick and fast, but their songs are firmly rooted in the noughties, and to this end they stand out as a truly contemporary act, rather more successful and engaging than, say, New Young Pony Club. Furthermore, there’s also a distinct rock sheen to their music, which in the best way prevents it from being too ‘clean’ a synth sound, akin more to the gutsy rocktronica of The Faint. Out in the limelight is Martina Sorbara, a singer whose voice is capable of a surprising range of characterisations and tone colours.
Fixin To Thrill is their most energetic release to date, a dozen songs each packing a unique punch and marking out Dragonette as having reached a new kind of maturity. It opens with the title track, a gritty cymbal-crasher with razor-sharp bass sawtooths worthy of Trent Reznor. This is a distinct curtain-raiser, fulsome but introductory, substantial but serving as an overture to what lies beyond. It’s followed by the delicately country-influenced “Gone Too Far”, a heavy foot-stomper that could set any barn dance alight; something of a departure for the band, although hearing them in ‘knees up’ mode like this is pretty exciting. But now come the first really impressive songs on the album, as well as the first to place the synths in centre stage, beginning with “Liar”. At a driving tempo that seems somehow to be neither up- nor downtempo, it marries mellow verses (with a great little bassline gently pounding in the left ear) to a strong, monotone chorus, embellished with some lovely bridge passages. Their melodies are excellent, carried off with real aplomb by Sorbara’s ever-so-slightly nasal soprano, which sounds especially emotive during the middle 8. All that’s gone before finds itself combined in “Stupid Grin”, another stomper that brings fresh surprises; the middle 8 causes the song to deconstruct into a refrain chanted by a choir of what sound like schoolchildren; it’s an almost incongruous moment, but works perfectly. “Easy” quietens down the mood again, with a vivid opening line, “You love me like a bull in a china shop…”. Harmonically simple, this is an exercise in fine melodic writing, the structure of the song pulled around to allow the song to, well, sing. In the central moment of repose, Sorbara reveals a delicious fragile and breathy side to her voice, emerging from her highest register.
We’re plunged back into the world of electrorock with “Pick Up The Phone”, which must be a sure contender for a single release (although, worryingly, that would no doubt bring a raft of insufferable remixes, something with which Dragonette have been afflicted before). Sorbara now manages to make herself sound like Goldfrapp in the verses, soft and whimsical, but lets rip at the choruses, replete with off-stage “oh-oh”s — this chorus is the epitome of what i said before about the band’s ability to meld retro trappings into a thoroughly new pop sound. But even this excellent track is surpassed by “We Rule The World”, without doubt the best song on the album. This is Dragonette at their most polished; the verses inhabit a narrow space, surly and clipped, with nothing but beats and dancing electronics beneath, whereas the anthemic chorus opens out into impossibly wide vistas, its chords pulling the listener inexorably upward, borne aloft on a melody that leaps around with glee, keen to soar up to ever higher altitudes. This is real paradise pop, impossibly brilliant, imaginative in its conception and flawless in its execution; best song of the year. After such an astonishing track, the following songs inevitably sound a touch lacklustre in its wake. “Big Sunglasses” is gently amusing but lacks strong melodic ideas, while “Okay Dolore” sounds strikingly like Peaches, Sorbara’s voice even resembling Peaches’ staccato delivery (in the rare moments when Peaches actually sings).
But then, the album takes another turn for the brilliant, ending with three more outstanding tracks. “Come On Be Good” evokes other retro stylings, with hints of Grease in its verses and even a trace or two of Abba in the bridge passages; it’s another song at a moderate tempo (they seem at their best in this area), but once again they make it move along with impressive pace. And now, a real surprise: “You’re A Disaster” pares away the electronica, the exquisite melody initially supported by nothing other than a rather perfunctory guitar. Sorbara’s vocals here are simply gorgeous, sounding remarkably like compatriot Elsieanne Caplette (and also a little like Portishead’s Beth Gibbons), and this isn’t the end of the similarities; as it broadens out into the underlying waltz rhythm, this is a song that could well have been executed by Elsiane, all of which is a big compliment. Unique and wonderful, this still wouldn’t be the best track to conclude the album, and sensibly Dragonette finish with “Don’t Be Funny”, another song with a big anthemic chorus that contrasts very excitingly with its softer meandering verses. But for all its weight, it is still emphatically a coda, never seeking to launch itself with the intensity of earlier songs, and it brings to an end one of the most best albums of 2009.
Clearly, Dragonette have brought a multitude of other artists to mind throughout this album, but i don’t want to give the impression there’s anything remotely like pastiche going on here. Dragonette are utterly individual, and i can’t recommend Fixin To Thrill highly enough – it’s definitely among the best albums of this year.