When the Besnard Lakes were applying the final touches to Are the Dark Horse, Jace Lasek wasn't exactly betting on the record becoming an out-of-the-gates winner.
"Even as we were finishing, I was like, 'Who in the hell is going to put this out?'" says the engaging singer-guitarist, on the line from his Montreal home. "Despite all the bullshit hype about this city, we don't sound like any of those bands. Also our influences are pulled from all these different directions, and because of that I didn't even know if the record had any continuity."
Funnily enough, Are the Dark Horse has gone on to become one of 2007's most critically lauded indie-nation albums, as gushed about by the horn-rimmed nerds at Pitchfork as it is by the corporate lackies at Spin. The accolades haven't just come in print. The album is up for a Polaris Music Prize, and the soaring centrepiece, "Devastation", has been nominated for a SOCAN Echo Songwriting Prize, both of which offer payouts that mean winners won't be eating Kraft Dinner for at least a couple of months. No one's been more blindsided by all this than the band, which includes Lasek's wife, Olga Goreas (bass and vocals), Nicky Lizee (keyboards), Steve Raegele and Richard White (guitars), and Kevin Laing (drums).
"To be completely honest, the only thing we really wanted–and I've told lots of people this–was for the record to be released on a label," Lasek says.
Not to accuse him of lying, but the Besnard Lakes' ambitions didn't entirely stop there, which may explain how the group ended up on shit-hot American indie Jagjaguwar Records. The goal was to build on 2003's independently released Volume 1, a record of distortion-strafed, DIY art-pop that was one of the year's best–and most criminally overlooked–outings. "We wanted to keep the ambient feel, but really bring the vocals out," Lasek relates. "We didn't even know if we were any good at singing, but we were like, 'If we're doing pop we're going to have to fucking sing with harmonies.' To put it over the top, our keyboard player, Nicky Lizee, who joined the band in 2005, is a composer. She's versed in writing scores for symphonies, so we were able to put all the strings and horns on the record."
Ultimately, Are the Dark Horse makes an excellent case that, as fans of the Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor! know, there's strength in numbers when it comes to Montreal indie rock. Unlike Volume 1, which was recorded by Goreas and Lasek as a duo, there's a sense of epic grandeur this time, with Lizee's work on the orchestral opuses "Disaster" and "Because Tonight" giving the songs a soaring, black-hearted majesty. The Besnard Lakes haven't forgetten the importance of subtlety, with "For Agent 13" and "Rides the Rails" sounding like they've been beamed down from a deep-space radio station programmed by Carl Newman. For sheer breathtaking beauty, though, nothing in indie rock this year will match "Devastation", in which towering walls of shoe-gazer guitar and chorus-of-angels vocals add up to a track that's every bit as powerful as its name. Based on that bombastic monster alone, Are the Dark Horse has confirmed the Besnard Lakes as one of the year's big winners.
The Besnard Lakes play Richard's on Richards next Thursday (September 27).