As we count down the few remaining days of 2019, there comes a sense of desperation to squeeze in a few more mentions of great albums released this year. Launched back in November, this new release from London, ON, quartet, The Pairs, offers an outstanding collection of original tunes that I have been unable to put down over the last few weeks. Being exposed to so much great new music goes with the territory here at Great Dark Wonder (and keeps us smiling), but every now and then, there are urges to find something that is just a little different; something that is not predictable or formulaic, but a little unconventional. And upon hearing the twelve new tunes found on “Noise,” this album is exactly what I have been waiting for.
Rewind to this past summer, where we had our first encounter with The Pairs, catching them performing at a pair of festivals, and marveling at their amazing charisma and on-stage chemistry. Comprised of twin sisters Noelle and Renee Coughlin, long-time friend Hillary Watson, and former-punk percussionist Steve Plimmer, this band are making waves across Canada with their energetic performances (I would add that with a strong and dedicated local following, they have surpassed ‘tsunami’ stage in Southern ON right now). If only there was a way to capture this synergy between the artists and their audience; to magically bottle it and let loose in the recording studio, because while there is plenty of energy found here on the album (probably as much as the strict confines of a studio can possibly allow), I really feel that having emerged as a quintessential live act, that same spark is hard to replicate when audience feedback is no longer present.
While the ladies split the lead vocals across the album, it is their stunning three-part harmonies that consistently bind everything together. Hillary takes the lead on the title track, which boasts a great traditional folk beat that not only allows those harmonies to be delivered in perfect unison, but demonstrates the natural chemistry that only siblings and life-long friends can share. Noelle offers the same with the thought-provoking and unsettling track, “Wrong Side Of Life,” albeit with a slower, melodic pace that is perfectly placed midway through the album to allow the band to ‘regroup’ back to the traditional side of their repertoire. “This song captivates listeners by telling stories of encounters with people who live beyond the barriers of the status quo,” Noelle shares. “The lyrics cut through the societal noise that contributes to the isolation and marginalization of certain groups of people, and articulates the internal dialogue that comes along with the discomfort of being confronted by what is different and unknown.” With a slight lilt in her voice, Noelle draws comparisons to the sound and style of the late Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries) at times, joined again by Renee and Hillary to close this track with possibly their finest collective harmonies (the echoes are truly haunting).
So far, so good, but what about being ‘unconventional,’ I hear you ask? Well, stick around, buckle up, and prepare yourself for quite a ride. Go ahead and skip to “Everything I Call Home,” where vintage organ-laced sounds and vocals hark back to the earlier days of recorded harmonies. With a wonderful old-time groove, and perhaps even a little Jitterbug influence, the theatrics and modern-day ‘Andrews Sisters’ routine is wonderful to behold. And pay particular attention to the closing moments of this track, notably how Renee, Hillary, and Noelle deliberately bounce their harmonies off each other in slightly different keys. If you appreciate this theatrical element, you cannot afford to miss “Hand In Hand,” where an unexpected opening sequence prompts the musical theatre that follows. Perfect for the stage (concert or theatre – your choice), nothing can prepare you for just how willing this quartet are to not only step out of the box, but to remove all preconceived limits of the folk genre. Best of all is the great olde-world Eastern European feel that draws to a close – outstanding in every way!
Other standout tracks include “Fallen,” a wonderful light hearted love song from Renee with a bouncy introduction and some chants of hey, hey, hey that catch you out mid-way through, returning as the song closes. Be sure to pay extra attention during these moments if you happen to see The Pairs perform this track live. “I Learn” sees the band delve into atmospheric Cowboy Junkies indie-folk territory, with a slow pace, muted instrumentation, and their voices front and center; voices that combine with great strength and a sole focus on the intensified close. And a personal favorite of mine, “Let Me Fall,” led by Noelle, and is a fusion of traditional with a pop element that draws comparisons to Sweden’s First Aid Kit for me. “This is perhaps a call to our loved ones, and asking them to be there for us and teach us what they know, and to be honest about what they don’t know,” Noelle explains. “It is a request to let us fall, not so far that we can’t get back up, but so that we can become resilient humans and learn how to move gracefully and tenaciously through struggle, and learn to empathize with others.” Note the light rings of an electric guitar that adds depth to their usual acoustic preference, and enjoy once more the harmonies that find their strength down the stretch. Don’t miss the beautifully timed slight pause, before the vocals kick back in and accentuate the bold statement being made.
Rest assured that The Pairs will make more than enough “Noise” on the music scene with this outstanding full-length release. With their beautiful collective vocals and slightly quirky-at-times material, you cannot ignore this band for long. Do not miss an opportunity to catch them live, where you will see them shine in their natural environment: center stage. With my earlier comparison to The Cranberries, not only do I relish the chance to see them again, but I am holding out with a new-found desire to see them cover “Zombie.” If my own personal genie grants me this wish, just remember that the idea was born right here, right now….. While I highly recommend this album, I absolutely insist that you hear these tunes live, because 2020 is set to be a banner year for The Pairs.
Photo credit: Michaela Devine