Even those who frequent Pitchfork and BIRP might have a difficult time stumbling upon a certain quintet of upstarts from Hamilton, Ontario. Funny, considering that Arkells all the rage on the Canadian indie scene, amassing the Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammy) for New Group of the Year in 2010 and Group of the Year in 2012. A brief journey through their discography is all it takes to see why. Their debut album Jackson Square announced them as a loud, persistent force backed by a subtle Motown influence and a unique brand of lyricism and their 2011 follow-up Michigan Left improved on that formula with some well-placed sentimentality and grace.
Now these boys from the north are back, riding the crashing wave of their third studio effort and sadly, none of us are the wiser. While their reign as kings in Canada, Arkells have yet to find their footing outside the industrial scenes of Michigan, Ohio and upstate New York. They’ve toured sporadically with Lights, Tokio Police Club and the Maine, yet alt radio still shrugs it’s shoulders and utters a puzzled “Ar-who?”
They may be destined to tread the underground this side of the border, but it’s far from deserved. Coming off a touring hiatus during which they played scattered sets of Motown covers, Arkells went to work expanding their sound. Hiring producer Tony Hoffer, whose resume includes Beck, M83, and Belle & Sebastian, they’ve diversified their sonic palette with string arrangements and piano breaks as well as a number of musical cues that lead singer Max Kerman says recall a “cinematic quality” related to the 1952 Western High Noon.
“The expression ‘high noon’ has a confrontational feeling to it,” states Kerman. “And lyrically we are taking some political ideas head on. A moment of great reckoning also brings clarity, and — whether it’s social politics or the politics of love — I think we get to the heart of the matter on this record.”
Kerman also notes that the band drew from several realms during the recording process, whether it be the political consciousness of The Clash, the alt fundamentals of the Replacements, the pop sensibility of Kanye West and Katy Perry or even left-field influences like Electric Light Orchestra. And what a glorious combination it all is.
Swinging out of the gate with the bombast of opening track “Fake Money,” Kerman and company embark on a rock and roll juggernaut that feels like a roller coaster that only goes up. Whereas Michigan Left succeeded through consistency and surprising bursts of wit, High Noon is all energy. Crowd-pleasers like “Cynical Bastards” and “What Are You Holding On To?” are sure to get listeners to their feet, but even the quieter moments like “11-11” are infused with a sweet urgency that make them hard to dismiss as mere radio bait.
While the Motown nods have been mostly jettisoned on this disc, Arkells peppers in more than a few winks at eras past. At its best, High Noon recalls 70’s power pop before it lost its bite (think the Romantics after a deep, drug-induced conversation), but this rearview gaze suits their music well. Like the Gary Cooper film of its namesake, High Noon is a relic of things past that we grasp for with a nostalgic reach. Check the name drop of Dirty Dancing and the forgotten task of calling one’s lover on the payphone (Maroon 5 be damned).
As always, the group excels at their big, booming choruses – some might say at the expense of the verses, but to miss the trees for the forest would be a mistake. The verse in an Arkells song serves as a conduit to get you there, sometimes with a cutting, emotional build to put one on the brink. And once you reach your destination, they nail you against the wall with a sweet bit of pressing indulgence. Take the previously mentioned “What Are You Holding On To?” The standout exemption from their no-more-Motown mantra, the group lay down a swinging hook that sounds like a grown-up Jackson Five collab with Bruce Springsteen (if only history had been so merciful).
Oddly enough, Arkells save their best moment for (almost) last. One of the final cuts , “Leather Jacket,” is a perfect cross-section of everything that’s right with High Noon – a nostalgic peek at rock and roll past a la a syrupy John Mellencamp, a soulful keyboard arrangement, and a chorus that will bring you to the verge of tears though you may not know why.
Some moments may fall flat on this disc, but overall it’s a stunner of a record and far superior to many of the cookie cutter American acts that dominate the airwaves. If your library grows by a single artist this year, make it these Canadian harbingers of an old-fashioned rockin’ time.
Listen to High Noon in its entirety here: