Dan Bejar has never been too precious about his songs. Whether doling them out for power-pop treatment in the New Pornographers or subjecting them to all manner of mutation in Swan Lake, he writes relatively straightforward pop ditties (excluding some of the most circuitous lyrics in all of rock) and lets the bona fide musicians he collaborates with transform them into elaborate compositions. Even his most recent work with Destroyer reveals Bejar conceding more and more to the idiosyncrasies and improvisations of the band’s recently solidified lineup.
But with his new project, Bejar plays a new part. On the debut by the duo Hello, Blue Roses, he is not the composer but merely an arranger and musician. All the music is written by his girlfriend, Sydney Vermont, the visual artist and one-time member of the Toronto Children’s Choir who contributed cover art for Destroyer’s Your Blues (2004) and the forthcoming Trouble in Dreams. In some ways, it’s hard to accept such a magnetic persona relegated to a supporting role, but Vermont’s songwriting is tuneful and eccentric enough that it’s easy to accept the reversal.
The majority of the record — cumbersomely titled The Portrait Is Finished and I Have Failed to Capture Your Beauty — is dominated by a skeletal approach to composition. Most of the songs are built on strummed acoustic guitar and the glassy timbre of Vermont’s operatic voice. On opener “Hello Blue Roses,” for example, that formula is only augmented by Bejar’s backing vocals, handclaps, and a few glockenspiel flourishes. As such, these songs are treated to a folk-like respectfulness for the melodies and lyric, which gives them the uncluttered space to be heard as purely as possible. This austere production serves them well. The best songs — “Skeleton Aims,” the title track — are steeped in an almost pastoral simplicity, like ’60s folk sans the toxic hippie posturing.
When Bejar and Vermont infuse these spare structures with more traditional rock instrumentation, the results are more mixed. The textural distorted guitar on “Coming through Imposture” is subdued enough to preserve the album’s plaintive atmosphere, but the full-band treatment of “St. Angela” languishes in the sounds of ’80s and early-’90s AOR. By the time the song crests into its benign rock-out section, replete with mandolin leads, you could swear that 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged has infiltrated your stereo. (And that’s a bad thing.)
Likewise, the sweetest duet of the album, “Shadow Falls,” is dressed up in the unmistakable tones of mid-’80s British synth-pop. In fact, against a backdrop of synthesizers, Bejar’s reedy singing voice sounds remarkably similar to the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. (How this observation didn’t surface when Destroyer released its all-MIDI Your Blues will remain one of rock’s great mysteries.) It’s an insidiously simple tune, but the duo’s decision to employ a conflicting palette of canned synthesizers is puzzling.
This is a solid set of songs that’s mannered and restrained to a fault. And without an irrepressible melody or moment of cathartic performance in sight, what could have been an expression of love’s passion sounds somewhat bloodless and wilted.