..Pugs and Crows brings on board Tony Wilson, one of the West Coast’s most prolific and innovative guitarists and composers, for the entirety of their latest release. Jasper D. Wrinch (DISCORDER)
According to their Bandcamp page, Pugs and Crows’ Everyone Knows Everyone is “Dedicated to everyone that plays or has played a part in contributing to this Vancouver music scene.” With all five members of the band — pianist Cat Toren, violinist Meredith Bates, guitarist Cole Schmidt, bassist Russell Sholberg, and drummer Ben Brown — collaborating with musicians across the city and beyond, it’s no wonder they acknowledge the community of music-makers and lovers that surround them. And if the dedication wasn’t enough to convince you of their collaborative zeal, Pugs and Crows brings on board Tony Wilson, one of the West Coast’s most prolific and innovative guitarists and composers, for the entirety of their latest release.
Despite the two parts of the double-LP being released six months apart, Everyone Knows Everyone 1 & 2 are meant to be experienced together. With sixteen tracks spanning almost two hours, the Juno-winning band’s latest release is not only a demonstration of the sextet’s musical ingenuity and endurance, but a display of their sonic diversity.
Pugs and Crows blend careful orchestration and free improvisation, with each musician commanding their instrument with near overwhelming skill and restraint. Despite having twice as many guitarists on the record than any other instrument, Schmidt and Wilson do not crowd each other, nor do their guitars overwhelm the rest of the band. In fact, the instrumentation throughout the entire double album is balanced to perfection, highlighting various aspects of each musician’s unique and advanced skill sets.
“Long Walk,” the first of the sixteen tracks, begins with a ghostly, paranoid guitar, shivering behind sporadic drums. The soundscape slowly builds in tension and volume, morphing seamlessly into a full band groove with an evasive time signature, only to fade away, leaving behind just a plucked violin.
Careful not to assault the listener with musical intricacy right off the bat, Pugs and Crows often opt for a slow and careful construction of songs. Starting simple, soft, and sparse, new layers are added into the mix, bit by bit, until the composition is complete and robust. Sometimes this happens in less than three minutes, sometimes in more than ten.
Just as they are not afraid to dive deep into dissonant, intricate, and aggressive free improvisations, the band isn’t afraid of silence either. Leaving ample amounts of space around each other, individual melodies, rhythms, and textures are given the chance to stand out from one another.
Of all the tracks, “Waltz for Two” seems the most out of place; not because it’s any worse or less interesting than the rest, but because it is not strictly instrumental. Debra-Jean Creelman adds her voice to the nostalgic waltz that could easily slip into Fiona Apple’s repertoire, circa Extraordinary Machine.
Aside from the one cover, “Run That Body Down” off Paul Simon’s 1972 self-titled record, the fifteen original compositions are inextricably linked to one another. “Long Walk”, “GOYA BABY!”, and “Slowpoke” are each given reprises, bringing back elements of their melody or structure, adding to it, altering it, and making a previously heard song sound new again.
It’s easy to get caught up in examining every detail of the album, with each track offering a goldmine in compositional nuance and prodigious playing, but sometimes it’s best to let the music just wash over you. After two records’ worth of captivating, genre-bending music, the final song, “Everyone Knows Everyone” acts as a microcosm of the double-LP. It plays like a wave, starting out as something small, building up to a breaking point, and receding back, resting on one musical idea just long enough to swell into something powerful, before tumbling down again, making room for another beautiful wave to begin.
..as comfortable working methodically through a ballad passage as dialing up the heat for a climax. Ron Schepper (Textura)
One of the West Coast’s best-kept secrets, Pugs & Crows is an instrumental ensemble that in contrast to many of its post-rock peers eschews bombast and histrionics in its presentation. Such restraint might exclude headbangers from its fanbase, but the Vancouver-based group presumably puts musical integrity before everything else. The quintet has refined its eclectic sound since the release of 2009’s debut album, Slum Towers, and follow-up two years later, Fantastic Pictures, which garnered the band a Juno Award in 2013 for Instrumental Album of the Year. The group’s members, pianist Catherine Toren, violinist/violist Meredith Bates, guitarist Cole Schmidt, double bassist Russell Sholberg, and drummer Ben Brown, are all highly proficient players who bring to the project ample experience as performers and recording artists.
Though Everyone Knows Everyone’s two parts were recorded more than a year apart, the first in January 2012 and the second between 2013 and 2014, they form a cohesive unit; it is possible to hear the second album as a slightly more mature representation of the group, but whatever differences there are between the parts are so subtle as to almost escape notice. It was smart on the band’s part to package the parts as a two-CD release, as in doing so, a comprehensive, 106-minute portrait of the band emerges. And smoothing the transition between the halves by ending the first with “Slowpoke” and then reprising it at the start of the second also suggests the band’s desire for the collection to be experienced as a whole.
With Tony Wilson joining in as a second guitarist, one might have expected the material to become an exercise in guitar shredding, yet here too the band challenges expectations. Wilson and Schmidt don’t indulge in high-intensity crossfire; instead, their playing is woven into the band’s sound to enhance its textural density and overall colour. Almost all of the compositions are credited to Wilson and Schmidt, either individually or as collaborators, yet the focus remains squarely on the band. Interestingly, if there is a main soloist to speak of, it would arguably be Bates for the simple reason that her string instrument voices many a lead melody and because its distinctive timbre separates itself clearly from the others. But describing hers as a lead voice already risks misrepresenting a band whose sound is very clearly rooted in ensemble playing. For that matter, one is as likely to hear a solo spot filled by Toren or a guitarist as much as Bates.
One knows something special’s in the works when the first part’s opener, “Long Walk,” begins in rather scattered improv mode before gradually coalescing into a piece of clearly defined shape and structure, a transition deftly effected by the group. The mournful tone of Bates’ ululating viola provides a memorable entry-point to “GOYA Baby!,” but it’s the band’s Arabia-Africa blend—the former in the swooning melodic content, the latter in the insistent groove—in what follows that’s most arresting. Languorous by comparison, “Efforts” advances from a delicate guitar-based intro to a carefully modulated ensemble performance highlighted by contributions from Bates and Sholberg. In an inspired move, the group includes a delicately rendered interpretation of Paul Simon’s “Run That Body Down” (from his eponymous 1972 album) plus brings vocalist Debra-Jean Creelman aboard for “Waltz for Two,” a sardonic bit of balladry with a bit of Kurt Weill in its compositional DNA.
Elements of rock, modal jazz, folk, world, and neo-classical genres are folded into the group’s sound, but so seamlessly no composition can be reduced to a single category. At its most ambitious moments, the band sometimes presents a piece in a suite-like form, and when there is a solo, it’s integrated carefully so as not to disrupt the focus on the composition, which is always paramount. Throughout this encompassing release, Pugs & Crows shows itself to be a versatile outfit, as comfortable working methodically through a ballad passage as dialing up the heat for a climax.