Beneath the seesaw tempos and big-top horn line, buried within the meticulous blasts of carnival avant-noise and stuttered trumpet blares, there is something hidden in Pick Up Sticks that They Shoot Horses Don’t They? doesn’t want you to hear: an indie-pop band.
These Vancouver art-rockers are best known for the oompah punch of their horn line (two saxes, a trumpet, trombone, and tuba), which creates a bizarre, P.T. Barnum-with-a-Marshall-stack rock sound. Only one year after the release of their first album, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, the band has managed to peel back the overproduction that so heavily weighed that debut down. But instead of using this opportunity to reveal their song craft — which is uniformly excellent, by the way — the band members submerge it within a sea of gimmick-laden, post-Beefheart beer-hall noise. Why? The notion of combining the swooning punch of cacophonic circus music with the rhythmic grind of guitars is a novel one, but They Shoot Horses Don’t They? uses the added noise not to augment its songs but to overwhelm them — to hide them.
There’s a massive sense of insecurity here, as if the band simply isn’t comfortable within its own skin as an indie-rock outfit and so must conceal the hooks under sheets of bleating brass squalls. Songs like “The Guest” and “A Place Called La” are beguiling, catchy gems — or at least they would be where they not hidden beneath a fire-engine shriek of wailing horns. This has worked for acts such as Captain Beefheart and the Stooges and Radiohead (particularly in its Kid A-era). But those groups used the noise as a natural emotional progression of their songs, not as an aural wall to disguise themselves. Further, these musicians simply don’t have the chops to achieve the careening-off-the-rails level of noise-rock they’re aiming for — it sounds forced. They’re too good at being concise pop craftsmen for that.
That high level of craftsmanship can be heard in the EP-length, mellow-gold center of the album, a four-song stretch in which the band members manage to restrain and then meld their overzealous horn line into a lockstep groove with the rest of the music, creating a sound that is both inventive and catchy, without sacrificing an iota aesthetic integrity; the horns are used to augment the songs and not vice-versa. “Speck of Dust” rides a grumbling, pulsing wave of bubbling trumpet lines intertwined with a breathy, strummed guitar arpeggio, and “That’s a Good Question” makes its mark as the centerpiece of the album, with its menacing circus throb of horns beneath a palpitating rhythm section, its jagged sax lines twisting and ascending ever upward around Nut Brown’s howled vocals, it’s a near-perfect chunk of post-punk cross-pollinated with swooning indie-pop. Essentially, it’s the sound of Interpol molesting the Little Ones under a circus tent. In a good way.
It’s that mid-album achievement, that controlled collusion of disparate sound, that makes the rest of the disc so frustrating. With Pick up Sticks, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, marred as it is by an excess of fake excess, has released half of a great album. If the members ever work up the nerve to release the other half, I’ll be listening.