Cains & Abels tread through a darkness perhaps similar to the one Bonnie "Prince" Billy sees in its elusiveness. The Price is Right, the follow-up to the band's 2009 full-length Call Me Up, hides something sinister underneath its pop constructions and echoing arpeggios. The EP has brought Cains & Abels to a smaller, stranger place. Since we last heard from him, lead singer and bassist David Sampson has settled more comfortably into the idiosyncrasy of his voice, a thin, fractured warble styled along the lines of The Long Winters' Sean Nelson. Sampson embraces the emotive power of his technical limitations, using controlled breaks at opportune moments to emphasize the weariness in his lyrics. He's no longer straining, nor is he using harmony as a crutch; instead, there's a new confidence in his offhand vocal quirk that beautifully characterizes the sound of the whole band.
The Price is Right begins in somewhat familiar territory for C&A fans with "All My Time Gets Wasted", an ennui-laden pop number full of chirpy arpeggios and subtle harmonies. The lyrics, comprising mostly the repetition of the title, illustrate a mounting frustration with life's tendency to slip away without bringing much progress. It's a catchy, twangy tune effective in its simplicity, but we're soon brought to another level by track two, "Vultures." Sampson's lyrical perspective switches back and forth between that of someone watching a dead deer being devoured by the titular scavengers and that of the deer itself. The chorus is delivered in a gently melodic, almost sing-song style, creating tension with the gruesome subject matter. "Vultures ate my body up," sings Sampson, playfully warbling on "body." It's a surprising line to hear, especially later as it cycles through your subconscious on repeat, but Cains & Abels possess the capacity to make grit appetizing, even addictive.
We push into Low territory with "After Owl," which circles along atop a funereal drone as it details the breaking of a social circle after a member's death. Despite the weight of the topic, Cains & Abels avoid the grandiosity that usually accompanies it. Sampson's aloof stance on the tragedy ("I don't know you anymore, I guess") feels even more broken than sorrow delivered straight would. The world of the record is inhabited by a darkness so pervasive yet subtle that one needs to whisper rather than shout about it.
The EP loses some steam with "I'll Be Home," a hollow slowcore track that, despite its lovely melodies and spacious chords, doesn't quite justify its six-minute running time. Nestled between more powerful tracks, it feels too gentle, too embedded in its genre to carry its length. Luckily, we finish with the album's crown jewel. The stunning "Stay Home Tonight" concludes the record with everything that's good about Cains & Abels. The chords, while still airy, are tightened up to an urgent progression under Sampson's bizarre and simple lyrics. The song commands a unique mystery as it explodes and recedes in perfect timing, like a sedated Built to Spill. It's full of an unnamed desire, the yearning for an ambiguosly better state, a reprieve from the unseeable darkness. The lyrics tell of menace in the form of waves as Sampson waits to fight them with an odd arsenal of everyday items. "This year will be good," he proclaims at the erupting bridge. It's almost a battle cry, underscored with an implied "or else."
Cains & Abels are growing to realize themselves, to further embody their perplexing and haunting world. It's the careful understatement, the balance of the mundane and the ethereal that arms this band as they learn to scream beautiful things into the void. Here's hoping it's a long and prolific journey.
"The Price Is Right" is available for whatever price you choose on Bandcamp.
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