A few different things can lead to an artist’s exclusion from the canon. As we’ve seen in past posts, one is critical derision. Another is, of course, obscurity – A band that never gets any traction outside of a small following is not going to be canonized simply because they’re unknown. I’d totally write one of these on Kickball if they had more than like 3000 fans. The third and most subtle route to non-canonization is to be well-received and make great music, and then for one fickle reason or another become forgotten. There aren’t actually a whole lot of bands like this – if people like you a lot at one point they’re not likely to forget. A lot of the acts who die by the lazy sword of this third category suffer their fate simply due to timing, and the blog-rock boom of the mid-2000s is littered with innocent corpses.
Enter Land Of Talk.
I. SO MUCH SKIN / SO LITTLE TIME
Land Of Talk formed in Montreal in 2006 when singer/guitarist Elizabeth Powell met some dudes in the jazz program at Concordia University and got them to play drums and bass for her. Neither of these guys stuck around for long enough to have a significant impact on the band, which was always all about Powell anyway. In 2006, they released their debut seven-song mega-EP, “Applause Cheer Boo Hiss,” produced by The Besnard Lakes’s Jace Lasek, to significant acclaim. The EP got a bit of buzz right off the bat – Canada was sooo hot in ’06 – but as far as I can tell it didn’t really garner the band a whole lot of traction.
Which is a shame because “ACBH” is easily the most immediate thing Powell put out as Land Of Talk. The guitars buzz and squeal, the rhythm section holds things down adequately, and Powell’s lilting alto worms around in weirdly catchy and even more weirdly affecting ways, playing through and around the guitar as if the two instruments are being played by separate parts of Powell’s brain. Opener “Speak To Me Bones” roars out of the gate with some of Powell’s most immediate lyrics, a harsh feminist screed over a harsh disco beat that would go over so well in 2015 that it’s hard to believe no one on “The Le Sigh Vol. II” is trying to repurpose this band yet – “Holy God / We are just bags of blood / Stop hitting on girls you love / Stop spitting on girls you love.” (The mid-aughts were really rife with Canadian women saying awesome things like this – cf. Metric, Crystal Castles).
Lead single “Summer Special” features one of this EP’s prettiest chorus melodies, which merges into a rough post-punk break right out of the mid-90s playbook. “Breaxxbaxx” has choppy, angular guitars out the ears and Powell hitting some of her glorious high notes that work as textural elements as much as melodic ones. “Magnetic Hill” is all about her guitar chops, which are far too impressive for a debut EP.
Mark Hogan’s 7.5 review for Pitchfork is a weird paean to Pretty Girls Make Graves, positioning Powell as a successor to Andrea Zollo’s post-hardcore queendom, which makes very little sense to me. I love PGMG as much as the next Northwesterner who likes guitars, but Powell is like three of that band’s members rolled into one, and with a much subtler emotional palette. To limit her work here to torch-carrying for PGMG is a huge reduction.
II. SLEEPING WITHOUT A KEY / ONLY FUCKS THE WAKING WORLD
2008 saw the release of Land Of Talk’s masterpiece, the elemental, subtle-as-eff “Some Are Lakes.” Terrible cover art aside, Powell does nothing wrong on this album, which had the added benefit of production from just-blew-the-fvk-up Justin “Bonny Bear” Vernon a few months after the Jagjaguwar re-release of “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Add the huge label boost up to Saddle Creek and it becomes totally baffling that “Some Are Lakes” did not become one of the biggest success stories out of Canada in the mid-aughts.
I’m going to chalk it up to subtlety. (Why aren’t there more words for “subtle”?) As Hogan wrote in his review of “ACBH,” “you know you like it long before you know why.” Nothing about Land Of Talk is flashy – they’re slow-burning in the most refined sense. If you’re not one to appreciate this category of emotion, “Some Are Lakes” is going to pass you by like something you didn’t understand and didn’t feel like putting the time into understanding. It’s a grower of a record the way “Alligator” and “Boxer” are – you have to spend time learning Powell’s language before it becomes a part of your own personal lexicon in a way that feels innate.
See, for example, the way opener “Yuppie Flu” breaks wide open in it’s bridge from a mid-tempo rock song with intricate harmonic guitarwork into a shimmering bloom of high-neck strumming and full-kit drum rolls. It’s a moment that could almost go unnoticed the first few times you hear it, but eventually it feels like the only thing that could possibly happen after Powell repeatedly asks, “Are you seeing your own death / And selling it to me?”
Powell’s lyrics on this record are far more oblique than they were two years before, and this might be another barrier to Land Of Talk’s canonization. The level of impressionism here bears another National comparison, but Powell focuses less on meticulous details than Matt Berninger, favoring instead weird slanted lines that don’t necessarily follow any sort of pin-pointed logic. “We’ve seen how sick wind blows / But I’ve got your bovine eyes” she sings on the chorus of the glorious title track. Who knows what either of these lines mean, but the tone of her voice gives you such an impression of wistful longing that you know exactly what she means. Then she drops a more direct bomb – “I’ll love you like I love you then I’ll die.” It’s juxtapositions like this that make Powell such a fascinating lyricist, deserving of the extra effort it takes to get her. Later, on the driving “Give Me Back My Heart Attack,” almost nonsensical verses – “Does this not take / If I could old school / Leave it on the line / Give you ladies exercise” – give way to the heart-scouring chorus – “So sad this won’t kill you / Tonight I sleep in the car / I release you, I’m a girl / When it’s cold out, I’m a dog.” Again, Powell’s delivery is what makes these lines hit so hard – the roughness in her voice comes to the fore at first, as it then softens into the second half, along with your heart.
This is to say nothing of her guitar playing. The evocative harmonics of “The Man Who Breaks Things,” the brilliant chord changes of the gorgeous “Some Are Lakes” (and that songs choppy bridge), the dissonantly chopping aggression of “Corner Phone” – I have to wonder what would happen if this album had come out in 2012 or so, when guitar heroines like Jenn Wasner and Annie Clark were becoming more and more acclaimed. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sadie Dupuis of newly-minted melodically-subtle/emotionally-fraught heroes Speedy Ortiz is a big Liz Powell fan – the same Northern chill pervades both bands.
The most obvious connection to be made here is to Broken Social Scene and its constellation of players – Powell toured with the band in the fall of ’08 as their requisite Leslie Feist/Emily Haines stand-in. What would’ve happened if Feist or Metric (or Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, for that matter) had put out “Some Are Lakes’s” heart-destroying ballad “It’s Okay”? If it had been Feist singing, “Maybe when I die / I’ll get to be a car / Driving in the night / Tearing up the dark,” there’s no question that the Starbucks crowd would’ve eaten it up. As it stands, Powell’s version of the song is too evocative and indirect to be hawked in corporate cafés. Lord knows how deep into people’s hearts Bon Iver could’ve taken the song.
In the end, though, things like the melodic intricacy of “Got A Call” and the quiet emoting of “Death By Fire” rendered what should’ve been Land Of Talk’s breakout moment into an after-thought of 2008, relegated to that bizarre limbo of the 70 percenters.
III. FOR ME IT WAS OVER / THE CORONER, THE CRIPPLE
After stop-gap EP “Fun And Laughter” in 2009, Land Of Talk released their final album, “Cloak And Cipher,” in 2010. Working with Lasek again, the band sounds way better than they did on “Some Are Lakes.” Unfortunately, this also means we’re dealing with a lot of overproduction, which tries to mask some significantly less interesting songwriting. The processed drum-break on the opening title track throws me off every time I hear it. This is the point when the band decided to forget they had a genius guitarist as a frontwoman – the song features glockenspiel, talk-back recordings, shakers, backing coos, and pretty much no guitar.
Things get mostly better from them, with the somber “Goaltime Exposure” – featuring Powell’s biggest chorus ever – and the driving “Quarry Hymns,” featuring Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara on drums, and which could easily be a “Fantasies”-era Metric song. Unfortunately, both of these songs (and a few others on “Cloak”) are well over five minutes long, and repeat each of their segments at least one too many times, crossing the line from subtle into boring.
The album is severely lacking in the guitar heroics and screaming aggression that made so much of “Applause” and “Lakes” so great. What’s more, it doesn’t make up for it by being packed with “It’s Okay” remakes, either. Aside from a few standouts like the lurching triplet-fest “The Hate I Won’t Commit” and the simmering “Hamburg, Noon,” this is an album of Land Of Talk middle ground that never really goes anywhere at all, even for all it’s fancy bells and whistles and high fidelity.
Land Of Talk stopped doing anything sometime in 2011, and Saddle Creek eventually confirmed a “hiatus,” which I suppose just means that Powell isn’t making music right now. For all I know, she’s chilling in Montreal, raising a family, having a life – gone the way of all artists who don’t quite “make it” after their second LP. Whether or not she’ll come back obviously remains to be seen. I personally would jump for joy, because I think the time is finally ripe for exactly what Powell is astoundingly good at. Jenn Wasner ditched her guitar on Wye Oak’s disappointing-as-all-hell last album, Speedy Ortiz have just announced a new one, and, Christ, Sleater-Kinney just came out with one of the best records of their career after a ten-year hiatus. Emotional vulnerability is huge right now. Guitars are huge right now. Acknowledging the problematic nature of this statement, it’s clear that women who play guitars while being emotionally vulnerable are killing it right now. If Powell showed up next month and dropped a big, screeching classic piece of Land Of Talk instability, I see no reason why people wouldn’t go apeshit. For now, though, I don’t know a single Land Of Talk fan aside from myself. This is a real shame.