Royal City 1999-2004

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2009]

Styles:  folk-rock
Others: The Mountain Goats, Silver Jews, Constantines

In an interview with the dearly departed Bandoppler Magazine, Royal City songwriter Aaron Riches said of their album Alone at the Microphone, “A lot of the big themes stick in your head and they linger behind you. I really think of Alone At The Microphone as being very much an infernal vision. The mud wrestling in baths of shit and all this kind of stuff that Dante saw when he went to hell.” It was a devotion to this creeping, mystic spirituality that separated Royal City’s music from the legion of like-minded folkers, the trick card that imbued the band with a wild sense of purpose and informed their freewheeling, rangy twang.

Now, five years after the Ontario band's dissolution, Asthmatic Kitty is releasing 1999-2004, a collection of scattered tracks, B-sides, covers, and leftovers from the band’s three LPs. The feel is strikingly cohesive, more like a record proper than its scattered origins would imply. Opening with a take on Iggy Pop’s “Here Comes Success,” the record wastes no time showcasing Royal City’s considerable strengths. Their strident, anthemic quality suggests The Arcade Fire (who opened for Royal City in their early days), but strips the outward grandeur of that band away, opting for a rawer, far nastier approach. The song falls apart with a miraculous freak-out — drums clattering, Riches shredding his words over violent guitar abuse — and segues seamlessly into “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” which features little more than droning harmonica, a softly strummed acoustic guitar, one yearning slide guitar, and Riches’ earnest vocals, ominously recalling some aquatic mishap: "I got water in my teeth/ Sand and blood/ All over me."

“Postcards” tackles heartache with rare clarity, a simple story of walking home in the rain. Over brushed snare, Riches intones plainly, "I don’t need pictures of you or postcards from you/ I don’t need nothing at all/ To remind me I’m blue for you." It’s a dangerous line, one that runs the risk of impossible melodrama, but is sanctified still by its delivery and by the terse, forceful backdrop of the band granting the words a simple power. “I Called But You Were Sleeping” recalls the low-fidelity grit of early Pedro the Lion, feeling entirely present, down to the room hiss and background clatter, with little more than melodic bells paired with Riches’ quiet pleas, singing, "Baby please, remember me," wounded and naked.

The band bring the same quiet grace to their lighter moments; “A Belly Was Made for Wine” offers reverent jubilee, tapping into the mystic spirituality showcased by their heavier material. “Dog Song” is a guileless meditation on man’s best friend, and “O You and Your Skirt” is a lilting ode to girl-watching, lusty yet sweet. The second cover on the record makes a waltz of The Strokes’ “Is This It?,” stripping the slacker garage-act from the song and revealing its bruised, weary core. “The Nations Will Sing” offers gentle piano pop, kazoos matching the marching cadence of the song as Riches commands, "Clap your hands for Zion/ Her salvation shall be a burning torch."

"I love you when I had nothing else to do," begins “In the Autumn,” the band’s de-facto anthem, with its rousing chorus of "C-I-T-Y/ Royal City." (The line was often transformed into "Royal shitty" on rough nights when the band found themselves strained from the road.) With characteristic restraint, Riches states, "In the autumn/ After all the leaves have fallen/ You will still be my darling." The harmonica swells, and it becomes apparent why Royal City succeed the way they do. Each song feels like a season, or a moment, or a couple years spent daydreaming, believing your band could make it big. Perhaps more than anything, Royal City sound like the moment right before it all explodes. The Canadian indie rock scene they helped birth certainly did so, with Royal City playing the beleaguered John the Baptist to The Arcade Fire's or Broken Social Scene’s Christ. As “In the Autumn” dissolves into the band howling and barking like dogs and playfully insulting each other, it seems like the role is one they were born to play, and one that they relished with particular glee.

Five years after Royal City’s breakup, it's doubtful that 1999-2004 will do little more than offer a fitting epilogue, closing the book on a band deserving of the cult status they’ve garnered. On “Bad Luck” they sing, "You will never know/ The places that I go to without you/ You will never, ever know." Yet it was a willingness to share their dark journeys — with gallows humor, honest charm, and somber catholicism — that made Royal City more than just a folk-punk band. And the fact that such a fantastic record is composed only of their odd bits justifies such a hyperbolic statement.

1. Here Comes Success
2. Can’t You Hear Me Calling
3. Postcards
4. A Belly Was Made For Wine
5. Dog Song
6. O You With Your Skirt
7. Bad Luck
8. The Nations Will Sing
9. I Called But You Were Sleeping
10. They Come Down
11. Is This It?
12. In The Autumn

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