The Stills stay anything but on Oceans Will Rise, as the band comes out more confident and assured than ever before. The Montreal-based group has endured some ups & downs since first appearing on the scene in 2003 with Logic Will Break Your Heart, including the departure of lead guitarist Greg Paquet, a change in lead singer, a less well-received follow-up in 2006’s Without Feathers, and the break-up of their American major label, Vice. Yet the band persevered, and has moved away from groundbreaking singularity and into a fuller, more wide-ranging sound on Oceans Will Rise.
The Stills emerged as part of 2003’s ‘Canadian Invasion’, but their more ‘traditional’ rock ‘n’ roll line-up and appearance always made the band seem more ‘American’ than such fellow countrymen as Broken Social Scene (QRO interview) or Arcade Fire (QRO live review) – and The Stills had also originally formed in New York City (like another north-of-the-border act, often seen as more U.S.-rock, Metric – QRO live review). Paquet’s leave brought writer/drummer Dave Hamelin (QRO interview) out from behind the set for Feathers, taking over lead vocals duty from guitarist Tim Fletcher, and that, along with the fact that their “goal was to not make anything like our first record” brought about a markedly different sound, dividing some fans. But the demise of Vice Records saw The Stills cross back over the border to Toronto’s Arts & Crafts (Broken Social Scene, Feist), as part of that label’s growing dominance over Canadian acts (like another recent signee, The Constantines – QRO spotlight). And now, with all of that “out of our system”, The Stills bring a more well-rounded sound.
“Don’t Talk Down” opens Oceans on an upbeat, even bright tone that is epic, yet winning – a fitting description of the entire record. However, there are many threads in many places, and nowhere do they diverge as much as on the following “Snow In California” and “Snakecharming the Masses”. “Snow” is a high, aerial assault, employing air raid siren-like sounds, but with a solid backbeat, giving it an almost Francophile disco-grand sense (The Stills are Québécois…). “Snakecharming”, meanwhile, puts its dark, ominous, even tribal rhythm front and center, creating a foreboding ‘storm clouds are a-coming’ feeling.
Oceans continues to mix it up like that throughout, never leaving the listener calm at one point or another. The following “Being Here”, and later piece “I’m With You”, are high & carrying with the kind of uplift that Feathers soared to at its heights. But then can come the stripped “Everything I Build”, whose sad touch is amplified by the stark change in sound. Combining these two strains is “Hands On Fire”, which grows from small to epic, then crashes back down – multiple times. But The Stills don’t always play it quite so serious – “Eastern Europe” and the penultimate “Rooibos/Palm Wine Drinkard” are almost ‘peppy’ in their pressing energy, “Europe” throwing in a funky jangle, “Drinkard” near alt-country guitars.
Finisher “Statue of Sirens” is maybe one experiment too far, with its soft, quiet harmony going on too long, but that’s after a trip that ranges wide and long. Away from the pressure of a debut and the pressure of a follow-up (not to mention cashing in on that sweet, sweet Canadian state support – the real reason Arts & Crafts is booming…), The Stills have been able to explore the seven seas of sound, from the eastern reaches of Europe to the white-capped mountains of California.