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Royal City, Little Heart's Ease (Rough Trade)
by: Steve Horowitz

How to describe the unusual, sparse sound of Royal City, the four-piece Canadian lo-fi, indie rock combo led by Aaron Riches? Imagine driving the rural route late at night. The car radio can't get clear reception, only the quiet white noise of far way channels that fade in and out. The only other sounds are the whoosh of the occasional semi-truck passing by, the chirps of frogs and crickets, and the tapping of one's fingers on the steering wheel. One's thoughts wander from memory to observation and back again. The friends one left behind, the stars and clouds above, where one is headed, etc.

If this is too abstract a description, perhaps a more concrete depiction of Royal City's third album, Little Heart's Ease, would help. A delicate male voice (Riches) sings to a strummed and picked twangy acoustic guitar. Interwoven are the rhythms of an electric guitar that uses distortion, feedback, tape looped effects, and odd tempos . A sparse snare drum beat and sometimes handclaps are used to keep time. Some tunes feature the wail of a harmonica. The songs sound religious, without a specific traditional context. The singer conveys spirituality through his quiet phrasing. One has to listen closely to hear what's sung, but even then the juxtaposition of words make more associative than narrative sense. The language sounds somewhat Biblical in the King James style. The songs have strangely allusive titles like "That my Head were a Spring of Water," "Take Me Down to Yonder River," and "My Body is Numbered." The music makes the listener reflective.

The lyrics use repetition to create a trancelike effect "Can't you hear me calling/calling after you/baby through the rain/calling to you," begins "Can't You." "O beauty ancient/ O beauty fresh," starts "O Beauty." Other songs have choruses that repeat the title phrases over and over, including "She Will Come" and "Bring My Father a Gift." The sounds of the words become a mantra more important than the meanings of the lyrics. The instrumentation reinforces the transcendent progression from words into sounds.

Every type of music has its own context to be properly understood and appreciated. Dance music is meant for dancing, even if it's only dancing by oneself in one's own mind. Contemporary popular rock is aimed at energizing its audiences. Folk music tries to create a community of listeners based on shared values. Royal City and its ilk (think Will Oldham's Odes or Smog) create fragile, meditative music that compels the listener to concentrate on one's own thoughts because one has to be quiet and focused.

Royal City has toured North America and Europe, but it's hard to imagine the music being performed live. The normal ambient sounds of rock and roll venues--buzzing fluorescent lights, the drone of feedback coming from the monitors, the clanking of glasses, bits of conversation, etc., would seem to impede the quiet delivery of the music. But on second thought, Royal City would naturally incorporate these sounds into the songs. One would hear, John Cage-like, the music of everyday objects. That's what Royal City does do well. The band makes one attentive to sound.