Red Potion – The New English Words Record

With the new release Red Potion, English Words become slicker elixir-mixers. (Try saying that 10 times in a row with an alcohol-thickened tongue.)

For whatever reasons, Canada’s East coast seems to continually nurture and produce some of the coolest Canadian bands around, whether Thrush Hermit, Eric’s Trip, Rose Cousins, Rich Aucoin or Wintersleep. The consistency, variety and talent of acts hailing from the Maritimes is remarkable. There obviously seems to be something intrinsic to the east coast that fosters and supports music and the arts. Maybe there’s something in the water? No one knows for sure, but that cultural attitude has helped bands like English Words put out lovely gems such as the new full-length release Red Potion.

Having recently undergone a name change (English Words was formerly known as Smothered in Hugs, the name itself taken from the title of a Guided by Voices song), the band’s style and sound has accordingly also undergone a rather dramatic metamorphosis and evolution. Whereas Smothered in Hugs was pretty much a straight ahead alt-rock combo, sometimes aggressive, sometimes sounding like Murmur-era R.E.M. or Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active, English Words’ sound is more reminiscent of the synthesized, post-punk side of 80s music, proudly electronic and synthesizer-driven. There are lots of vocal effects, reverb and other studio enhancements on Red Potion, but they are used to great advantage by producer Matt McQuaid, bassist for Toronto’s Holy F*ck.

The album’s opener, Bumblebees, showcases the band’s darker, dreamier, more ethereal side. The first single and one of the standout tracks, People I Love, nicely illustrates the band’s penchant for majestic and warm-sounding arrangements and production. The follow-up single, Takeover Panther, is a perfect example of the “growly” (excuse the pun), danceable and accessible feel of these songs. The sixties-inspired guitar intro leads nicely into a melody line that would be at home on a Public Image Ltd. record.

Lead singer Ryan Crane’s voice is welcoming, with an interesting tone and delivery – lush, deep, sombre and reflective. The band also experiments liberally with new approaches and sounds. The song All My Lovers, for example, with its church-like intro, leads into a 1970s Casio-keyboard-sounding clap-track, steadily keeping time, with Crane’s drenched, velvety vocals draped over top.

The eighties sound seems to be very much de rigueur nowadays, with bands like Foster the People and MGMT making inroads into larger, more commercially-minded markets. The thing is, having lived through the 80s the first time, I’m not so sure I want to go through it all again. I sometimes still have nightmares of being trapped overnight in a Club Monaco, pinned under a mound of 70 or 80 well-folded (but ultimately ill-fitting) Jodhpur riding-pants. All while an out-of-work “Hypercolour” rep tries really hard to sell me on the idea that clothes that change colours based on how sweaty you are, are actually a good idea. Not so!

But on Red Potion, English Words is able to surpass the more shopworn ideas and aspects of that genre, while still maintaining its obviously sincere love for its influences. This is a somewhat darker take on 80s music overall, and there’s a heavy, almost foreboding kind of atmosphere on this record, reminiscent of 80s mainstays like The Mission, Love and Rockets and David Sylvian. The orchestral flourishes add an interesting layer and feel to the songs, and are a nice juxtaposition to the darker undertones. Overall, English Words’ influences serve to make Red Potion an interesting and expansive record, and it definitely makes me curious to hear what the band will come up with next.

Someone once said: “There is nothing new under the sun”, as if that were a bad thing. All Art, heck, all Ideas are built upon the ideas and innovations that came before them, good and bad. (Just ask Bill Gates.) Because that’s how good art and good ideas are created in the first place. Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones “borrowed liberally” from the blues legends before them, and it worked to their advantage in terms of creating a new sound. Artists take from the world around them; that’s how art works. In fact, the next time someone you know starts spouting off about how this painting or that book is completely original, sit their all-knowing butt down and make them watch this – Everything is a Re-mix

All art borrows something from everything, and that’s the whole point. That’s how something new is born, to in turn be taken by a new generation and spat out and rethought again and again, each time different, each time a new idea. And on Red Potion, English Words made a very good new idea.

Red Potion is available through Bandcamp or iTunes.