I have been hearing good things about Canasta for some time now, so when I recieved their debut full-length, We Were Set Up, in the mail, I found myself both excited and curious. I was greeted by a highly personable and unique press kit in the form of a 3D Hallmark-like information card with my name on it. This in addition with the snippets of great press I’ve heard about them made me pop it in on this rather boring Friday night. Well, they sure lightened things up. We Were Set Up is impressive on all levels, with engaging song structures and catchy melodies over their six-person lineup of guitar, bass, piano, violin, keyboard, trombone, and vocals. I find good chamber-pop to be simply indomitable, especially for Canastra’s style in which the music is often enjoyably complex but not overdone, which is rare these days with many concurrent acts preaching the foolish musical philosophy of quantity over quality. While they are already local favorites in their native Chicago (headlining at the Metro and Double Door), the out-of-towners are starting to catch on. Vocalist Matt Priest’s assertive upbeat vocal melodies blend together with the various instruments almost flawlessly, with key innovations such as Elizabeth Lindau’s violin and Priest’s trombone corresponding nicely to the traditional sounds of guitar, bass, piano, and percussion. Priest’s vocals often remind me of a more coherent and Dan Bejar, though Priest’s pitch changes slightly for varying songs. Though Canasta’s influences contain artists such as Wilco and Belle & Sebastian, I see a strong comparison to fellow newcomers Some By Sea, who also utilize chamber-pop with modern influences. We Were Set Up is clearly one of the best full-length debuts of the year, and don’t be surprised to see it also show up in several publications’ list for the best albums of 2006.
‘Slow Down Chicago’ is one of their songs generating the most buzz, being named one of the “Best Songs of 2005” by Chicago’s WXRT Radio. The song reminds me a bit of a more upbeat Spoon, with the theme of Chicago (Spoon’s ‘Chicago At Night’) being relevant in both. ‘An Apology’ uses an eclectic mixture of a continuous guitar riff, keys, bass, and a recurring violin. Priest has the proper wit for enjoyably proper lyrics, such as the description of his first heartbreak: “When I was eight, I tempted fate, a big mistake… I told a girl she meant the world to me, I looked down when she broke up, spent the rest of recess in a tree”. As one of more musically simpler songs on the albums, it is a nice and catchy break from the excellent but concentrated songs such as the lengthy ‘Shadowcat’ and ‘Heads Hurt Better’. ‘Sympathetic Vibrations’ sees a new female vocals for each of the verses, with Priest joining in on the chorus for the infamous New Pornographers (Newman/Neko) effect. Lindau’s use of strings are often expressed in the chorus for many of the songs, somehow sounding fresh each time. All the songs do sound fresh though, each and every layer of them. Canasta will keep gaining recognition in the coming months, and rightfully so.