A Northern Chorus: Bitter Hands Resign (Sonic Unyon, 2005)

by Brent

Northern BitterI live in Canada, a nation known as much for its ice hockey and French-speakers as its high taxes. Indeed, with our 15% sales tax and various other dues, we residents of Canada seem to pay more than our fair share of money to the government. And often, we wonder where the money goes (while acknowledging that our health care system is kind of free, and we have decent roads compared to most places in the world). One sure beneficiary of our hard-earned tax dollars, though, is the fan of post-rock/dreamy/space rock genre, because, funded in part by a grant from the Canadian government (in the name of “the arts”), Hamilton, Ontario’s A Northern Chorus has created their sublime Bitter Hands Resign. How cool is it that our seemingly stuffy bureaucrats find it within their hearts to support such a musical endeavour? Featuring sounds that are reminiscent of a host of other artists such as Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Ester Drang, Coldplay, Slowdive, and Mazzy Star, A Northern Chorus plays an expansive brand of dreamy rock/pop that shimmers in a sheen of reverb and delay.
Bitter Hands Resign is the band’s 3rd full-length CD, and finds the band focusing their languid songwriting and sound that was starting to be evident on 2003’s Spirit Flags. Most of the songs on Bitter Hands Resign are long, patient, drawn-out affairs, and some songs, like “Subjects and Matter”, feature powerful crescendos that quake with an intensity not witness before on A Northern Chorus CD before. Yet, while the band follows the familiar strains of dreamy rock with their falsetto vocals, layers of undulating guitars, slow paced rhythms, and obligatory string arrangements, A Northern Chorus rises above the mundane with their well-crafted melodies. For instance, on the poignant “This Open Heart”, lead singer Stu Livingstone cranks up the intensity on an already beautiful song, singing with a perfect melody, “Tell me what happens when the planets align. Will torrid skies collapse our hearts? Will jealous moons come crashing down into the ocean floor?”. The melodies on Bitter Hands Resign are catchy without being kitschy, and are developed patiently. A Northern Chorus allows their songs to develop and move along at their own pace, and as a result these songs gracefully flow into emotive compositions. For example, “Prisoners of Circumstance” begins as a soft ballad (with some underpinnings of tension as eager guitar lines cradle Livingstone’s voice), and over the course of the next 7 ½ minutes, the song builds to a loud crescendo of guitars, only to recede into a delicate postlude with gentle guitars, keys, and drones lulling the listener into the delicate and pastoral “Costa Del Sol”. “Don’t Think of Collapse” similarly begins as a faint whisper of a song, only to build to a wailing climax. In the midst of the strong songs (and every song is crafted around memorable melodies), Bitter Hands Resign also demonstrates A Northern Chorus’ attention to detail. Listen to the cascading guitar line beginning 50 seconds into “Subjects and Matter”, or the beautiful string arrangements of the instrumental “Watershed Divide”, or the Sigur Rosesque sonics of “Costa Del Sol” at the 1:20 mark. Throughout the CD, the band rewards the patient listener with a host of hidden sounds, counter melodies, and subtly technical playing. This attention to detail, along with the stellar production qualities, elevate Bitter Hands Resign as a memorable and moving collection of songs.

I’ve read a review or two that complains that Bitter Hands Resign all sounds the same, or blends together into one big mush of music. And indeed, upon the very first listen, the CD does sound like one long extended lullaby. But, where most bands bore listeners after the first couple of listens, A Northern Chorus delights upon repeated listens, as the songs begin to peer through the haze of dreamy sonics and the production details begin to be noticed. Bitter Hands Resign is a beautiful disc, and showcases the growth of an already well-received A Northern Chorus. I can’t imagine my tax dollars going to too many better projects than records like this. Heartily Recommended.

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