“All my friends got a new direction and they say that they’re living now…”
So begins Toronto-Portland band The Box Tiger‘s first full-length release, Set Fire, loosely defining the framework beneath the intricate riffs and cutting, cunning lyrics. Quickly, one begins to sense the disconnect between the band and the world in which it lives, and while it’s not a line drawn in angst or intentional defiance, it is an exploration of what it means to be the ‘Other’ and, more importantly, what it takes to break free and revel in nonconformity.
“Bleeding Hart” kicks off the album with its bass line evocative of Joan Jett and catchy refrains, revving the proverbial engines as any good opener should do. It’s certainly got single potential, although second track “The Hollows” is far more enticing to the ears with its ominous prowling verses spilling into an almost grunge chorus. Simple song structure at its core, the vocals of Sturino and flourishes of guitar elevate it, giving it a flavour all the band’s own.
Lead single “Set Fire To Your Friends” is the quintessential example of how a primarily indie rock band weaves elements of pop into its repertoire cleverly. Hook heavy and almost inappropriately cheerful as Sturino declares, “Let’s set fire to our friends. We can watch them burn ’til they’re dead, dead, dead!“, it’s one of the band’s strongest compositions to date. It also sets up a choice in track sequence that works to grand effect: upbeat-sombre pairings that serve to keep the album from neither sinking too low nor soaring too quickly into the sun. On the heels of “The Hollows”, the pop-inspired harmonies are particularly welcome and playful.
The use of pop song structure to intentionally clash with darker elements continues with “Knives”, the second single released as a lead-in for the album’s release. Eighties babies like myself may giggle in secret to a refrain of “Cuts like a knife” but the track is again one of the sinister deceptively cloaked in gossamer and ought to be a Top Thirty hit by now. It’s also a much-needed moment of relief on the heels of “Hospital Choir”, a true heartbreaker that evoked memories of loved ones lost to illness on a level I haven’t experienced since Matthew Good‘s “99% Of Us Is Failure”. A pained lament, it fades to a delicate wave of sound crashing over the rocks as Sturino laments, “I’m so sorry that I can’t be better at all…”
If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that the album seems to drop off a little in the last few tracks, something I attribute to sequencing. For me, a quality album ends on such a strong note that I am compelled to return to track one and indulge again. Instead, I find myself more frequently jumping backwards from “Taller Than Trees”, which feels more befitting closer status with its near-optimistic vibe and pulsing vibe. For the endless iPod shufflers (self included), this ultimately pauses little trouble, but for those who prefer very much to listen to albums in order, it’s a detriment. This isn’t to suggest that the closing four songs aren’t enjoyable; I personally dig the almost 60s vibe of “See-Through Hole” in its guitar lines, particularly as a complement to “Set Fire…” I do wonder whether shifting another track after “Unmasked” would improve the album’s overall feel and “replay quotient”, though.
Set Fire is, on the whole, a strong album worthy of one’s ears in the ever-crowded music scene. Walking the tightrope between cheer and sorrow, it is an album of life — one that feels genuine and deliciously raw. Like many of us in our early thirties, The Box Tiger echo the jaded hope within.
Consider it a call to introspective arms, and scorch the earth within.
Highlights: “Set Fire To Your Friends”; “Knives”; “Hospital Choir”
Final Grade: A-
You can check out The Box Tiger at their official site, or sample it below.