Royal City

1999-2004

(Asthmatic Kitty; 2009)

By David Ritter | 3 July 2009

From 1999 to 2004, Aaron Riches fronted Royal City, a lynchpin of the much-missed Three Gut Records. Now he studies Radical Orthodoxy at the University of Nottingham. First he proffers the boozy sin of Toronto’s alt-folk underground and then chooses to write a dissertation on the nature of God and all his works. This seeming contradiction is resolved in the words of Riches’ songs. Not every song references the metaphysical, but many do, and even his love songs are otherworldly. So on “A Belly was Made For Wine” Riches celebrates life in devout tones: “A feast was made for laughing… / Let the feast be lasting.” The Royal City catalogue is filled with such musings, and Riches’ devotions bring a level of depth to his songs not normally found even in a rich folk scene like that of Canada’s biggest city.

1999-2004 is a rare thing. Technically a career-spanning collection of b-sides, outtakes, covers, and rarities, it is much more than an odds-and-ends listening experience. Running the gamut from fully realized lost gems like “A Belly…” to bedroom sketches like “They Came Down,” 1999-2004 captures the range and potency the band possessed throughout its tenure. It’s so good that it jostles for position with the full lengths the band released. Much of this is due to the great musical instincts displayed in the sequencing of this compilation. According to bassist Simon Osborne, there is more material in the vaults. Rather than throw everything into the pot and slap it together chronologically, however, the band relies on their still-sharp musical instincts to create a record of surprising drama and depth.

Beginning with a slight touch of twang, the opening track quickly builds to a bang of distant cymbals and kiln-dried guitar. It’s a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Here Comes Success”—perhaps a somewhat ironic gesture for a band putting out its last gasp five years after its last show—that the band takes for a romp before it descends into a mad cacophony of screech and scream. The band then immediately reels in all this liveliness for the plaintive harmonica and slide guitar of “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” a love song barely sung in Riches’ half-busted croon. “Postcards” slowly builds toward the forthright strum-along of “A Belly…,” and thus the record’s mood is reset to “upbeat reverence,” only to have it fall again in a dramatic cycle that deepens as the record progresses.

At twelve tracks, 1999-2004 eschews the lifeless archivism of the Collector’s Edition era for the concise restraint of the album artist. No guff, no filler. Surrounding them with strong material makes the highlights seem even brighter. I keep mentioning “A Belly Was Made For Wine” because it is wondrous: simple strummed chords, piano, and softly sung harmonies combine into a whole that’s mountains more than its parts, perfect to accompany lines like “And if a friend is ever weeping / may we offer them our sleeve.” It’s folk music as prayer; the sort of song that helps us see the beauty in all our favourite songs. The Royal City catalogue is filled with great songs, and this one stands with the very best.

The middle third lightens things up considerably, with a good helping of silliness on “Dog Song” and “O You With Your Skirt.” “Bad Luck” is a more straightforward original version of the single from Alone At The Microphone (2001), easily one of their career highlights and containing the Royal City line to end all Royal City lines, “Bad luck you are a terrible laughing god.” This version lacks the astonishing production and arrangement—in particular the drums and keys—that make the album version one of the best Canadian singles of its era, but it’s interesting to see the song’s genesis. Royal City’s take on the Strokes’ “Is This It?” is in 3/4 time, but I promise it plays for more than just country-waltz laughs.

Last things last: “In The Autumn” is a fitting end to the band’s final release. The song was something of a theme song for the band, with “C.I.T.Y. Royal City” as the refrain. The song fades out in a false ending, and the final minute of the track finds the band in the studio chatting, laughing, and howling at the top of their lungs. I won’t attempt to rationalize this gesture—it is as strange as Riches’ words. There are still many mysteries among these songs, not the least of which is how they could leave such great material uncollected until now. Though belated, 1999-2004 is for die-hards and newbies alike, and contains revelations enough for those fortunate enough to be counted among the faithful.

:: myspace.com/royalcitytoronto