I love it when an album that's completely unfamiliar to you feels like coming home.
The first time I saw Winnipeg band Sixty Stories play live, it was in an abandoned church in Brandon, Manitoba on Halloween. A couple years go, I'd reviewed their debut EP and at the time of the church show the group was somewhere in between having released their only full-length album, Anthem Red, and breaking up, which was a considerable shame given how incredibly good that album is. The power-pop threesome crafted an incredibly engaging, loosely-themed album focusing on the trials and tribulations of growing up as a teenage girl. While the subject matter has the potential to come off maudlin, depressing or trivial, frontwoman Jo Snyder has a knack for painting a realistic picture of how significant the experiences of that era of life are to those living it as opposed to how their reactions are viewed by others.
After disbanding in 2004, Snyder and her bassist/co-writer Sarah Sangster reformed under the moniker Anthem Red, adding the extremely adroit drummer and guitarist that currently grace their new lineup. They managed to write, record and release the album Dancing on the Dishwasher a few years later and absolutely nobody noticed.
Frankly, it's pretty fucking sad that nobody is listening to this CD. The new players have opened up Snyder's songwriting, providing a lusher and more deft pop-punk backdrop for her observational, slice-of-life tunes. Blurring the lines between Jawbreaker, Elvis Costello and Vivian Girls / Discount / Fifth Hour Hero / your favourite girl-punk band, there are literally no bad songs on this album. Snyder's singing voice is just as unique as her writing voice; where her vocals have been described by reviewers as "androgynous" (and that's one of the friendlier descriptions), she's managed to reach a slightly higher register without losing that unique tone. Her lyrical focus is more on adult minutia than adolescent this time around: anxiety over flying; reconciling the fact that your parents are getting older with your own aging process; smoking on a fire escape.
Better still, the writing contributions from Sarah Sangster ("Power Lines," "Broken English," "Wonder") rival anything the band has produced in either its present or past incarnations. "Broken English" has caused me to once again go all rubbery over a song; like "Second Hand Tables & Chairs" from Sixty Stories' Anthem Red it's a perfectly structured song that exudes genuine emotion and boasts a jaw-dropping performance. Perhaps most impressive is the sublimely-layered three-part harmonies, a trick that never really presented itself in the old band. Equally as jarring (in a good way) is "Diet Cokes & Stethoscopes," an introspective number about seeing your future in your aging parents' eyes.
This album is a more-than-welcome reminder of days gone by. A release cheaply recorded in another group's practice space and released on another continent has retroactively become one of my favourite from its year of release. After just a week I know this album back to front; several of the songs on it are honestly some of the best I've heard in years.
Snyder is now a bit closer to actually penning the sixty stories she may or may not have intended to write when she started her last band. Here's hoping she makes it there and beyond.
[Review originally appeared at Sound Salvation Army]