High Noon, the excellent fourth record from Hamilton’s Arkells finds the band making a crucial decision about their future: innovate or stagnate.
The band’s straight-ahead sound to date has managed to keep them on the radio, beer commercials and sometimes that pre-Hockey Night in Canada montage, so why leave that safe place? Visibility and commercial success are a unicorn artists chase with perpetually sadder results these days and it takes as much skill as it does luck to make them both work together. The good news is, Arkells now have all the experience and tools they need to make that leap.
Key among those tools is visionary production work from producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix, M83). Hoffer’s sound is deceptively complex – minimalist but dense at the same time – and helps elevate (as opposed to reinvent) Arkells’ sound above its previous efforts. And that elevation is evident from the jump, as “Fake Money”, the album’s first track, re-introduces vocalist Max Kerman’s spectacular vocal range to a sound that’s now reminiscent of Joshua Tree-era U2: thumping, driving toms, organs and frantic strumming. The familiar themes in the lyrics – institutional corruption, the working man’s struggle – make their return, but feel more focused, ambitious and indignant. At the song’s refrain comes “you’re just some cowboy / at high noon / playin a board game / up in a board room” which shows the band’s signature humour has matured in a big way.
And with that tone established, tracks like “Cynical Bastards” continue Kerman’s warts-and-all outlook as a grizzled rallying cry for the disenfranchised. The song laments that “if the ‘80s were tough/then the nineties were mean / Always left out and desperate / with these fast cash machines” but then refraining with “well month by month I feel a change in the breeze / stammering on just make your own history”. Add to that furious piano riffs and synths by way of the Killers, and Arkells are now flirting with a sound that echoes Springsteen’s best stadium anthems.
What makes High Noon work so well is that it manages to keep that energy consistent throughout. ”Dirty Blonde” goes all the way with its ‘80s influences: the synths are now full-on DEVO and the lyrics are laugh out loud funny with the chorus “with your thigh-highs and dirty blonde hair / oh oh oh / I got this twin bed and it’s ours to share / oh oh oh”. These sorts of lyrics come from the same place as “Oh the Boss is Coming!” but are more self-aware AND self-deprecating. And as with any great album, this is just one of the many chant-along tracks that’ll stick in the band’s setlist for years to come.
High Noon is exactly the kind of album you’d hope Arkells would make at this point in their careers: sonically mature but still playful and amusing. It’s also proof that the band is capable of an ever-evolving sound that plays to an ever-increasing fanbase. Once and for all, High Noon bombastically declares Arkells as a pillar of Canadian rock.
Read our interview with frontman Max Kerman about the making of High Noon here.
Essential Tracks: “Fake Money”, “Cynical Bastards”, “Come to Light”, “Dirty Blonde”.