As we commence the New Year (with a smidgen of optimism that the ‘new normal’ is on the horizon), what better time to make my final Canadian vinyl purchase of 2021 the first feature piece for GDW in 2022. Finding a copy of “Strike Me Down,” the second 2021 album release from Toronto-based duo Whitehorse in the new arrivals section of my local independent record store this past December, it was an easy decision to make when giving this one an inaugural spin on the turntable on Boxing Day. If the “Orange Crush on Clear Vinyl” was not enough to make you take notice, the unique audible experience from these ten new tracks shall certainly warrant attention.
With “Strike Me Down,” the husband/wife duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland not only pick up from where their March 2021 “Modern Love” release ended (as per their PR: the duo’s blueprint for love in the digital age), but once again showcase their incredible versatility, masterful storytelling, and melodic sensibilities. Having been a fan of this duo dating back to their formative years (and their prior solo works), while these new tunes stray far from their edgy-indie-alt country past, for a listener like myself who learned to discover his own musical tastes and identity from the sounds of the late 70s through the early 90s, this proves to be very, very pleasing to the ear.
Recorded by Thomas D’Arcy at Taurus Recording in Toronto, and co-produced with Gus Van Go (credited with mixing duties too – mastered by Nik Kozub), “Strike Me Down” is definitely an apt title, as it smacks you with such incredible force and potency. You may not always know exactly what you’re likely to find on a new Whitehorse album, but if you’re expecting plenty of Luke’s guitar shredding, Melissa’s thumping bass lines, and their spaced-out vocal layering and dual harmonies, you shall be amply rewarded. Don’t expect an immediate successor to “Modern Love” here – gone are the warm overtones and songs about love and commitment. Instead, “Strike Me Down” raises the stakes and explores themes of ultimatums and consequences, whilst continuing to play with fantasies and realities, theirs and ours.
Such themes are evident on “Sometimes Amy,” an earlier single shared just prior to the album release last fall, and one accompanied by a great tongue-in-cheek music video that we just had to share on our social media pages. With a catchy beat and dreamy vocals, this was almost bubble-gum-punk-pop in sound, while visually, an emotional SOS wrapped in the shape of a 90s sitcom theme, pleading for relief through the duo’s signature combination of guitars and harmonies. The opening track, “Am I Just Gonna Stand Here (While You Take My Girl Away) shares similar dreamy sounds, as synth and guitar rhythms spin and swirl in equal measure, dizzy and giddy in sound while it weighs its options, or lack thereof – Luke’s vocals transporting the listener to 80s pop music heaven. Both the theme and timeline seemingly progress towards the early 90s sounds with “Play It Safe” – complete with soothing synth-pop beats bouncing around the speakers (hints of Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” can be heard), and with Melissa’s vocals happily encroaching on Alvvays territory here.
Luke’s ringing guitars and Melissa’s vocals in “Why So Cruel” combine to paint pictures of music from the 80s post new-wave era. And while my own musical memories are going into overdrive here, I hear snippets of The Human League, with perhaps hints of The Maisonettes tossed in for good measure (and exposing too many clues of an impressionable youth, to boot). But if you are becoming convinced that this is a collection of tunes wrapped up in dreamy vocals and shimmering synth vibes, well, go ahead and dispel such thoughts right now. Only a ‘Whitehorse rookie’ would not anticipate the duo ramping things up, pushing their boundaries and seeking to obliterate any pre-conceived notions prior to stylus meeting wax at 33rpm (or prior to hitting play on your streaming player).
Take “Please, Maria,” for example, where the combination of drum machine and 80s rock guitar provide the soundscape to Luke’s super-distorted vocals; or “Seven Deadly Sins,” where Melissa’s dirty, thumping bass and vocals not only offer hints of BC’s Dear Rouge, but convincingly transport you to that emo-goth nightclub you’ve always sought to avoid. Ever respectful to their own past, “Four More Miles” harkens back to their earlier work, offering hints of “Passenger 24” with Luke’s signature guitar rings and their quirky and eccentric dual vocal effects. And if you’re seeking something a little epic, check out “Man Of War,” with its mood-setting intro that transforms into an explosive tour-de-force. Doucet and McClelland harmonize beautifully to deliver this powerhouse, going all-out-full throttle one moment, before slamming on the brakes and face-planting you against their windshield the next.
I have professed my passion for early-mid 90s indie-pop music many times over the years, so selecting a favorite track on “Strike Me Down” was pretty much a no-brainer. Finding a cover of Mazzy Star’s underground indie hit “Fade Into You” – a tune I found myself ‘lost in’ many times back in the day – was a very unexpected surprise. But, of course, when it comes to songs to which have been held dearly for many years, tied to specific memories or life experiences, it can be hard to relinquish them – especially to another artist looking to reinterpret and recreate. Once hearing the familiar, somber intro (synths as opposed to acoustic guitar), I was already adopting a defensive posture. Similar to asking if a painter could accurately recreate the masterpieces of Picasso, would Whitehorse make it or break it for me? The mood and tone were on point, granted, but what left me momentarily speechless was how Melissa completely immerses herself into the vocal delivery. Hope Sandoval has such a distinct, eerily moving voice, which is perfectly captured and respectfully replicated here, wrapped up in distorted guitars, shimmering keys, and a potent upright bass that adds a blissful finishing touch.
Once again, the JUNO-Award winning duo deliver the goods. “Strike Me Down” is a fabulous album, mashing together a haphazard collection of sounds and tunes into their pre-determined narrative, whilst offering glimpses of their own musical past and growth. It goes without saying that I remain very curious to see which path this duo shall embark upon with their next musical project – and should I find the vinyl at my local independent record store, it too shall be coming home with me. “Strike Me Down” is available via Six Shooter Records, and on most streaming platforms.
Photo Credit: Lyle Bell