It's unfortunate that Balladeer / To All the Guys I've Loved Before, the new album just released by Calgary band Woodpigeon, is likely to be largely overlooked. It's another collection of indie folk gems by Mark Hamilton, Woodpigeon's amazingly prolific and talented leader. This is a quieter album than Treasury Library Canada or Songbook, Woodpigeon's previous full-lengths. It's more reminiscent of the Houndstooth EP, with songs primarily driven by acoustic guitar and vocals, although additional flourishes from instruments like violin or clarinet are employed masterfully.
Hamilton has a knack for great melodies, and great lyrics to match. He conjures up some nice imagery in "So Hold": In a flat tin box/Your first letter to me, five years on/Didn't read what you wrote/Cuz I'm sure by now, it's not what I'd want. Album closer "Beth Jeans Sleepover" is just a really gorgeous song, while the haunting "An Entanglement of Weeds" deserves special mention. It clocks in at nearly seven minutes long and tells the tale of a twelve year old boy drowning after falling into a river while attempting to rescue his friend, recounting his thoughts as he realizes that he is going to die.
Why is this fantastic album almost undoubtedly going to receive little attention? Well, despite containing 12 songs and 44 minutes of all new material, Balladeer is merely a bonus disc attached to Woodpigeon's other new album, Die Stadt Muzikanten (did I mention that Mark Hamilton is very prolific??).
And while Balladeer is an excellent piece of work, Die Stadt Muzikanten does deserve top billing. It's a masterpiece, Woodpigeon's best album yet. I've previously written that the main elements that make Woodpigeon's music so appealing are the catchy melodies, lush instrumentation, and boy-girl harmonies that I can only describe as delicious. All of that is still present in spades. Die Stadt Muzikanten, though, just sounds bigger than any previous Woodpigeon release. While comparisons to artists like Belle and Sebastian or Sufjan Stevens may still be appropriate, Woodpigeon have really found their own sound here. They're equally adept at infectious chamber pop ("Empty-Hall Sing-Along," "Enchantee Janvier") and heart-achingly beautiful balladry ("Spirehouse," "Our Love is as Tall as the Calgary Tower"). They rock harder than they have in the past on "The Street Noise Gives You Away" and "My Denial in Argyle" (the most danceable Woodpigeon track yet). And I would be remiss to leave out a pair of nautically themed numbers. "Redbeard" is a clever song in which the protagonist hunts down a pirate who "stole and burned most everything, the life that I once knew," for the purpose of revenge, only to fall in love. "...And as the Ship Went Down, You'd Never Looked Finer" is a tour de force. It contains the most interesting arrangements and instrumentation on the album, building from a simple, repetitive percussion and piano intro to a rousing climax with violin, banjo, accordion, and stirring vocals playing key roles along the way. It's interesting that on both Balladeer and Die Stadt Muzikanten, a strong contender for the title of best track is about drowning - Colin Meloy would be proud.
Die Stadt Muzikanten can be streamed in full on Woodpigeon's website. The album won't be officially released in the U.S. until March, but is available to purchase from digital retailers, and the CD version can be ordered from Boompa. I would highly recommend the latter; the bonus disc alone is worth the price of admission, and Balladeer is only available with physical copies of the album.