It’s a testament to the better angels of global culture that a bunch of music geeks in Vancouver can grow up to make worldly, magisterial, boldly contoured pop together. And it’s a testament to the better angels of the Salteens that, after a decade as a band and seven years after establishing indie label-of-love Boompa Records, they’ve crafted an album defined by both precision and heart.
Grey Eyes nods towards sophisticated ’60s European and American pop constructionists (Gainsbourg, Bacharach, the other Scott Walker) and brass-tacks workmanlike hit-makers of yore (Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building), while acknowledging transformative pop heirs from the ’70s and ’80s (Godley & Crème, The Smiths). Yet far from being a mash-up of influences, Grey Eyes captures the freshness that marked the dawn of popular music and periodically renews it — no matter what hurts and indignities pop songs are woven from, a transcending embrace of possibility remains a genre fundamental.
Salteens’ songwriter Scott Walker had a lot of grief to give to Grey Eyes: the passing of his father, and witnessing his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, leaving him on the threshold of assuming the terrifyingly adult roles of caretaker-of-memory and maker-of-the-future; navigating the dashed expectations and broken promises of grown-up life in this crazily uncertain era; and, most of all, committing the brave acts of love that can be as painful as they are redeeming.
Nevertheless, the pop law holds: the lower the lows, the higher the highs. And so it is that Grey Eyes — polished, crisp, sprightly, and architecturally realized — is a sublime and energetic continuation of a catalogue launched with The Salteens’ award-winning debut Short-Term Memories (endearing Records, 2000), deepened on their 2003 college radio chart-topper Let Go of Your Bad Days (raison d’être for Boompa) and this spring’s tantalizingly silence-breaking EP Moths, and further developed over years of globetrotting tours and performances (did you catch them on Yo Gabba Gabba?).
The Salteens — some of them friends for decades, and almost all steeped in formal training, including Walker and his BA in Music — approached their long-awaited follow-up as a celebration of shared experience and technical mastery. Eschewing guitars to fashion Grey Eyes solely from stunning brass arrangements, gleaming choral melodies, and other deft orchestrations, the band has crafted an impeccably burnished album that disputes the silly notions that ‘indie’ equals ‘ramshackle’ and pop is inconsequential.