This Cursed House, the debut album from faux-Canucks Canada—they're actually from Ann Arbor and Detroit—starts with a cowbell. But before you assume this band is gunning for the ironic rocker crown, keep in mind that this is literally a cowbell—as in a bell, looped around the neck of a cow, not a studio instrument. The song, "Printemps," is a soft instrumental opener of lightly strummed acoustic guitar, children's voices, and the bell, jangling softly in the wind. While the unforgiving streets of Detroit might be cruel enough to birth the toughest garage rockers, DJs, and white emcees, Canada wants no part of it. Instead this seven-member collective is content living off—and singing about—the barren land.
According to Ryan Howard—whose instrument assignments in this motley ensemble are far too many to list here (let's just say he sings, claps, and plays percussion)—their love of the outdoors was the impetus behind the band. "The 'nature' aspect was something that existed from the very beginning. In a way, it is what initially brought us together as a band in the first place. All of us have spent the vast majority of our lives in the Midwest, and so the whole aesthetic that the environment represents is deeply rooted in us. I have friends who grew up in NYC, and to them, it's a beautiful thing to be so connected to so many people and places, but for us, we find the same value and importance in going 'up north' for the weekend, or the sounds that an ancient wooden house makes in the winter."
Respectfully borrowing from the Neutral Milk Hotel catalog, with a little Page France throw in the mix as well, Canada's environmental daydreams are shrouded in childlike whimsy, yet are quick to remind the listener of how remorseless nature can really be. Canada does not stray from that tempo in "The King's Ashes," a non-geographical Sufjan-esque ballad, but if there are any religious connotations here, it's lost in the wary vocals and echoing melodica that prop up the skeletal song.
"Cold Mouse Winter" lives up to its stark title, as a lone melodica note (the instrument that's usually a novelty is Canada's best pal, fitting in well with both the band's depressing dirges and blossoming pop explosions) escorts in the mournful voice of Howard, who promises, "I'll be home tomorrow when the snow is gone." What follows is a soft dismantling of swelling drums, guitar, and violin that leads to a few handclaps and a pair of a cappella voices that declare, "We are left to see the seasons change/We are left to sing it all again/We are left alone." Despite its best sing-along intentions, the song turns into a campfire massacre (is Camp Crystal Lake in Ann Arbor?) of lost hope and bleak depression.
Of course, Cursed House is not all darkness and depression... no, wait, in fact, it is. But amid their emotionally draining gloom lies a deep respect for the hardships of living off the grid, and existing within nature.
So just remember this, as Canada drags your lifeless frame through the woods and tosses it into the lake: You can take some comfort in knowing that the band does indeed take the time to appreciate their surroundings.