Murray Lightburn is not the black Morrissey.
The Dears are not the Canadian Smiths.
No Cities Left is not the 00s The Queen Is Dead.
It's better than any of that.
I'm not trying to downplay the Smiths influence, though it's more full bore anglophilia that seems to be the lifesblood of The Dears' second album, but reducing it to a simple Smiths pastiche robs it of a lot of its charm. Lightburn's definitely got a lot of Moz's wit, though the more often I see Divine Comedy mentioned in comparison the more I hear Neil Hannon as his main influence, but his voice is much deeper and richer than either of theirs. The band's music recalls none more vividly than early Belle and Sebastian, albeit rid of the twee-ness and with the opulence scaled back a lot of the time. Of course it sounded impossibly ornate when compared to the band's (quite good) debut, but even the tracks with an increased insrumental palette still bear the mark of the core band above everything else. George Donso III might be the most under rated drummer of the decade, never getting overly showy but driving each of the twelve tracks along with such ease and poise that I can't help but focus on his work, even when the songs get more involved.
And speaking of the song themselves...well, other than the slightly overlong "Postcards from Purgatory" - which really does its best to earn the near 8-minute length with one motherfucker of a climax, but still could be trimmed a bit without losing much of its power - they're some of the best examples of indie-pop I've had the pleasure of hearing. It's rare that two tread over the same ground, or if they do at least to go about it in a different way. The mood is pretty morose overall, but the album is peppered with enough lighter moments to make it less of a slog through the dark. I mean, any album that houses a single as heart-on-sleeve romantic as "Lost in the Plot" or songs as sunny and optimistic as "Don't Lose the Faith" and "Warm and Sunny Days" can't be described as full on bleak, and even the darker moments have a nice amount of levity to them. "Who Are You, Defenders of the Universe" may spend a lot of time repeating 'I can't love you' with the sort of tossed-off nonchalance you'd expect to hear around the dinner table but it also has lines like 'We're not all blood-sucking leeches / cuz we all have families too / but that don't mean that we really love them / or that we don't' to break the tension. Really, it's only the noisy maelstrom of "Pinned Together; Falling Apart" - which I bet would absolutely kill live, especially given Lightburn's climactic solo - that could be described as full on bleakness, and given that it lies betwee nthe alternately raucous and languid "Expect the Worst / Cos She's a Tourist" and the bouncy "Never Destroy Us" that aspect of it is pretty well glossed over.
All in all the album is one of the few poppier things I still find time for with any regularity. The depth and variety herein are sometimes overwhelming but always exciting, and given how disappointing I've found their subsequent releases it stands as the one time that the band was able to pull off something like this, making that much more special in retrospect. I remember having this at the poll position of my first ever best of 2003 list and if not for the trio of 2003 releases still to come here, all of which I came around to much later, it would probably still be there. A full six years later it still hits me as hard as that first listen, and sometimes that's all I can ask for.