Before this decade, only Canadian artists who had explosive popular appeal – like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion and the rest – would make it in the States, their success having less to do with a homegrown Canadian music market and more to do with the open-armed American music industry’s willingness to swallow any delicious pop morsel whole. Most other bands were left to wither in the lonely, obscure Canadian cold. And then Canada surprised everyone and produced, in one decade, not one but two genuine, sprawling homegrown scenes – based in Toronto and Montreal, really the only two cities in Canada anyway – that led to great art-tinged pop groups who also found immense popularity across the border. Led by the New Pornographers and then Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, these groups have perhaps defined the sound of Indie rock in the last decade more than any others, American or Canadian. The explanation for their popularity has little to do with the Canadian scene itself: the burgeoning international indie movement of the last decade has created a larger venue for more experimental artists, and the online democratization of music has made it easier for new bands to catch a break regardless of their location.
There is nevertheless something distinctive about Canadian indie rock. While most American indie rock bands seem to revel in their go-it-alone attitude (only recently with projects like Dark Was the Night has any semblance of an American indie collective began to emerge) Canadian musicians often act collectivity. PS I Love You in some ways epitomizes this and in others throws it by the wayside. They are part of an online community that quadruples as the place to find the goings-on-about-town in their home of Kingston, Ontario, a record label, music video club and zine. And their first pressed single, “Facelove”, came as the B-side on a (physical) 7-inch with their friends Diamond Rings (though the first track got some Pitchfork love, the B-side was largely overlooked).
But PS I Love You is just multi-instrumentalist Paul Saulnier and drummer Benjamin Nelson – who lays down an excellent, feverish set throughout, especially featured on A-side “Facelove” – and is primarily the lifelong musical journey of Saulnier. And yet they might as well be an army. Where the Japandroids, another recent breakout duo from Canada, describe themselves as “a two piece trying to sound like a five piece band,” PS I Love You is a two-piece that actually sounds like a five piece band, with Saulnier on guitar, vocals and (via his seemingly possessed right foot) bass organ. Not that that really matters. I listened to this song for weeks without knowing that there were just two guys in the band. But it only adds to their mystique: when I offered them a gig (admittedly for basically nothing) they responded that, as “poor Canadians,” they didn’t even have passports (see their video too). For shame. These guys pack more than enough edge and just enough hook to fill whole hipster stadiums – ones that don’t usually serve as most-of-the-time ice rinks.
I’m serious. Why? Turn on “Facelove” and keep reading. This single is pure propulsion. There is no hook or verse, just continual upward motion. Using the wavering, weighty bass organ as a jumping off point as it gains momentum, they briefly toy with a surrealistic love call (“your love is like a giant strawberry (or) a delicious glass of wine (or) a naive dream of mine / thrown in my face.”) but then cascade into a guitar solo that would put Jimmy Page to shame. Yes, there is something distinctly heavy metal about this song: the beat may be post-punk but the guitar solo is more Black Sabbath than Joy Division. The way he doubles the lines, his effortless shredding – Saulnier clearly has some nostalgia for times when guitarists proved themselves by doing more than looking pissed off. And just when you might expect them to pull a 360, to return to Saulnier’s high-pitched hoarse cry, they just keep pushing, turning the bridge into a never-ending solo that makes you wonder if the guitar is going to fly right out of his hands. No need for another verse; that would bring these guys back to earth. They are in outer-fu*king space.
Where A-side “Facelove” sounds like bits grabbed from the last forty years of rock thrown into a smelter and served hot, B-side “Subtle and Majestic” firmly situates PS I Love You in the Canadian indie rock scene. Recalling the more spacious singles of Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, the lightly picked guitars and delicate chords complement Saulnier’s off-pitched voice and render it as something that is both serene and grubby. He conveys the mix of sincerity and self-deprecation that every musically-inclined dude has experienced when making a mixtape for a significant other (hopeful or real): “I’m not trying to be romantic but I made you this mixtape/ It’s subtle and majestic and I know that you’ve probably heard most of these songs before/ But this time they’re from me/So you can really hear what they actually mean.” He gets at that perhaps ridiculous (or, in the opinion of this mixtape obsessed writer, perhaps not) feeling that, by putting songs in their just-perfect order, you put your unique mark on them and make them real for your obviously floored listener. More, Saulnier’s strained but powerful call at the end of “Subtle and Majestic” (“Let’s quit smoking together/let’s start smoking together”) expresses the familiar longing to undertake shared projects with another, though which particular project is basically irrelevant. What matters is that last part: together.
I think we like bands best that take the familiar and put an unusual twist on it; that don’t so much re-invent a genre as perfect it. With hard hitting beats, sweet guitar hooks, some seriously heavy bass organ and just a bit of self-conscious sensitivity, PS I Love You is able to be both a part and an extension of their scene and sound. Now let’s get them some passports.