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.