Not that the Deadly Snakes' abilities were ever in doubt, but there's something about 2005's Porcella that's all the more remarkable months after the fact. 2003's Ode to Joy went lengths to shed any stylistic constraints that roped the band to their garage rock label, so the direction on Porcella was certainly not out of sync with what came before. However, the Toronto six-piece deserves a tip of the hat for pulling off this record as well as they did. Porcella is instrumentally denser than its predecessor, yet still maintains the organic roots of the Snakes' past work. Everything here is shared, from the songwriting credits to the seemingly revolving instrumental roles. Perhaps I just like the imagery of it, but the band's PR about recording in a secluded northern Ontario cabin rings true. Porcella revels in the space, the clean air and the earthy simplicity of rural life. This from a city band.
Porcella is simply a great record, with shades of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, the Band, `60s gospel and Canadian folk layered around what's ostensibly considered a garage punk act. Yet the statement made on Porcella was, it seems, incomplete. There's no other explanation for the presence of A Bird in the Hand Is Worthless, a double gatefold vinyl version of said release. Yet this is no simple media transfer, as the wax is completely resequenced and sporting seven fully realized additional songs. We've been inundated with useless reissues of modern records lately, most of which sport pointless B-sides or media content of dubious shelf life. Let it be clear then, this is far from some cash-grab "Porcella avec DVD" -- such would be a disservice. This is Porcella -or- A Bird in the Hand Is Worthless, as intended.
Side A kicks off as the CD does with "Debt Collector," a dark and moving garage ballad. The differences appear on the record's second track, jumping to the propulsive "Sissy Blues" earlier than the CD does. This is a small change but it's important, as moving the brooding "200 Nautical Miles" off to the 4th side changes the overall pacing. The chimes of Andre Ethier's wailing "High Prices Going Down" maintain position, paired this time with the soulful proclamation of "Oh Lord, My Heart." The first addition to appear is the stomping "Ambulance Man," unique for the backing vocals in the chorus, sung en masse by the band. The tune has a choppy "London Calling" rhythm and evokes a mood similar to the Clash anthem.
The B-side features a wealth of new material, with four of its five songs not featured on the CD. The lone representation of the plastic is "By Morning, It's Gone," a gleeful horn-driven tune that appeared on the latter half of that version. The side leads with "She's Going Home with Him," a poppy, organ-driven soul track. It's perhaps one of the most fully orchestrated songs on the release, and that speaks volumes about it. The additional songs here clearly aren't the typical session leftovers, and if they are they certainly don't show it. "Break-Up Conversation" is a country-duet between Age of Danger and guest vocalist Jenna Roker (of Montreal rock'n'soul act the Sunday Sinners). Andre Ethier steps back into the spotlight with "Bound to Get Lonely," forgoing his usual excited whelp for a deep voiced, bluesy tone. The accompanying harmonica cements the track. "Veronica Brown" completes the side, with Matt Carlson's wounded vocals juxtaposed by some huge sounding brass.
With the exception of two tracks on side C, the second slab of Porcella concerns it self with reordered songs from the CD. It's here where the sequencing gets interesting. The gentle "I Heard Your Voice" leads things off, occupying much the same place as it does on the CD. One of the two new cuts, "Don River Jail," adds a calm bit of soul and provides a nice setup to the frantic preacher-vocals of "Let It All Go." The movement of the pensive and quite brilliant "A Bird in the Hand Is Worthless" from the CD's finale to a rather un-important slot on side C is quite curious. The track provides a strong thematic tie to the work, growing from a seemingly simple nursery rhyme to a lush arrangement of strings. The song still holds up of course, but it seemed more fitting as an epic final note, not simply a middle track. The side instead ends with "No Sympathy," a new song and a bit of a murder ballad from Ethier's pen. It's the most guitar-heavy cut on the album, introducing some of the band's distorted garage past into their folksy organic present.
"Gore Veil" has the spotlight of leading side D, a fitting place for the curiously addictive mellotron-driven single. First rate compositions from the CD close things off, wrapping up with the crooning "So Young & So Cruel," the lyrically wonderful condemnation "Work" and the aforementioned "200 Nautical Miles." Side D ends with "The Banquet," a fast and shambling garage punk song by Age of Danger -- and that fact confuses the hell out of me. It's certainly an energetic finish, but there's no sense of finality to the track, certainly nothing to match the epic ending that "Bird in the Hand" gives the CD.
It's the reorganization of Porcella that fascinates me. Digital music has done much to kill the art of the sequence, but this is just the sort of band to obsess over it. The confines of vinyl force you, as a listener, to take notice. One wonders though what the intended artistic statement is. The purist in me says the vinyl, and with the expanded artwork and track list it certainly seems that way. Yet the CD will doubtlessly be the version most people hear, and with the audience in mind perhaps the cuts to the running order were for the best.
Porcella was a joy to listen to upon its release and remains so today. Even if you've picked up the CD, the vinyl version is so unique that it's well worth your dollar. You can't say that about many records.