What do you do when you're the first true indie-rock supergroup, a seemingly inescapable label that plagues your best thoughtful songwriting efforts? Why, recruit even more
people, of course, and make Son Of Evil Reindeer
. Scotland's Reindeer Section is now close to being the National Band of Scotland, given that nearly everyone who commits sound to wax in that country is on this disc. Fortunately Son of Evil Reindeer
never turns into a no-win scenario (like, oh, the Judgment Night
soundtrack) because it's anchored by the elegant, subtle songwriting of Gary Lightbody, whose voice is also the guiding light of this boisterous lineup. While at times it seems as if the Section have turned out a collection of songs that would work just as well if Lightbody were in a room with a guitar while the other twenty-five members of the Section went out and drank, repeated exposure makes plain the valuable contributions of each player.
Since primary points of origin for The Reindeer Section include Snow Patrol, Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai, they've been saddled with "melancholy" as a descriptor, a second label to sit in the lap of that "supergroup" tag. While "supergroup" is an inarguable matter of pedigree, "melancholy" is an easily-applied writeoff. Sure, there's more than a dip into what most people take as the signature mood of Scotland, but some of these songs can be called downright optimistic, "You Are My Joy" not least among them. Melancholy pop is unquestionably a characteristic of the Section, but limiting a description to that is missing the point.
Of course, the band sets out to prove me wrong by opening the disc with the sad bouquet of "Grand Parade", flush with strings, horns and rich backing vocals over a simple guitar and vocal underpinning. The interplay of horn and string make this track sound like a closer, but it's a fitting declaration for The Reindeer Section, as the thoughtful track opens itself to a cautiously hopeful sentiment. For a catchphrase, I'd go with that description; see also the French horn on "Last Song On Blue Tape" and throughout the gradually building "Cartwheels".
"Where I Fall" is a standout -- a track that sounds decidedly American, like Lou Reed fronting Califone. It's the disc's starkest track, a central starting point from which everything else is built and embellished. "Budapest" and "Your Sweet Voice" display similar qualities with wider instrumentation. In fact, the spare, smoky sadness that Belle and Sebastian have set as the Scottish standard is eschewed in favor of a more trans-Atlantic ethic, as The Reindeer Section display a collection of ideas that my pappy might call "country". That's not to say this is an album full of pickin' and grinnin', but the Section tap into the same well of lyricism and reserve as the old country greats, and the lap steel on "I'll Be Here When You Fall" doesn't hurt.
With all this praise threatening to put a blinding shine on the Section, I feel compelled to mention that I can't place much stock in the teen-diary lyrics of "Who Told You", not to mention the irritating Nokia beep that closes the song. But that's it. Following this slip into weakness, the Section (who are Legion) regroup and hit me with what turns out to be the perfect closer, after all: "Whodunnit?", with Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat's voice a departure from the sweet, understated vocals of Lightbody et al, in a context that darkly mirrors the disc's lush-yet-reserved opener.
The last thing you'd expect from a roster of 27 is breathing room, but Son of Evil Reindeer is full of it; I've found a lot of unexpected touches in the short time I've had the disc. Lightbody and Co. have managed their efforts well, transcending the assumptions that surround many of the contributing bands, for which I'm thankful.