Karkwa Sound Rich, Honest and Relevant on 'Dans la seconde'

BY Bruno CoulombePublished Sep 7, 2023

It might be a bit difficult for non-Francophones to grasp the significance of Karkwa's comeback. From 2005 to 2011, the band played a key role in shaping the identity of the Montreal franco scene, in the same way the Dears or Wolf Parade did for its anglo counterpart. Now, the quintet has returned with its first new album in 13 years, which offers some of their most textured work without falling prey to nostalgia.

The story of Karkwa is a fascinating one. Over the course of four LPs, they've built a signature sound by combining elements of prog, folk and experimental rock while still being rooted in the tradition of the chanson québécoise. But while their friendly rivals Malajube got multiple reviews from trendsetters like Pitchfork, Karkwa remained a well-kept secret outside of Quebec (although they toured Europe extensively), which might have had something to do with the fact that they focused more on the clarity of the vocals, while Malajube's lyrics were harder to decipher.

The situation was such that when Karkwa took home the Polaris Prize in 2010 for their album Les chemins de verre, they were still pretty much unknown in Canada, which spurred some type of controversy. In an article titled "Pourquoi Karkwa," one columnist for the Globe and Mail described them as "an obscure (to English Canada) art-rock band from Montreal" and pointed to the presence on the grand jury of four Francophones (on a total of 11 voters) to explain its victory, which he called "not only predictable" but "nearly pre-determined." Sigh.

Perhaps the context is different now and Dans la seconde has the potential to generate interest outside of the usual circles. Although it moves away from the fiery energy of early releases like 2005' Les tremblements s'immobilisent, it focuses more on orchestral textures, with even some electronic elements. It's not a total departure from the band's previous work, but it does offer a fresh perspective on their sound instead of simply trying to revive the past. 

The album kicks off with the brilliant instrumental "Ouverture," which features some of their most unique and dissonant sonorities with what sounds like electronic drum programming and tape manipulation. Early single "Parfaite à l'écran" is more typical Karkwa but it veers in unexpected directions with scrappy guitar licks. The languid "Nouvelle vague" also experiments with electronic timbres in a way that echoes some of the Flaming Lips' more recent releases before erupting in a powerful crescendo.

What's interesting about Dans la seconde is that it seems to be informed by the recent solo work from its members, but now repurposed to fit the band's sound. Since 2012, guitarist and lead singer Louis-Jean Cormier has become one of the most respected artists in Quebec, bridging the gap between commercial success and indie credibility. A track like "À bout portant" would have fit nicely on his solo albums — with its lyrics about fake news and toxic exchanges on social media — but it's now magnified by the band's arrangements and the inventive play of François Lafontaine, now one of the most sought-after keyboardists in the province.

Percussionist Julien Sagot also released one of the most interesting albums in Quebec in 2021, one that mixed his low, deep voice à la Arthur H with atmospheric trip-hop. Although he doesn't sing on Dans la seconde, his presence is strongly felt in the rich and dense production of "Gravité" and "Miroir de John Wayne."

The greatest comeback albums are those that don't try to mask the fact that time has passed (think of Slowdive's return in 2017). While it's not their best work, Dans la seconde certainly fits that definition. Sure, the tempo has slowed and there's no rock anthems in the vein of "La façade" (from 2008's brilliant Le volume du vent) but it actualizes their sound to make it feel honest, rich, and, maybe more important, relevant.

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