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Royal City

Like fellow Toronto native Neil Young, Royal City is in the business of desanitizing pop music by dirtying it up with generous helpings of folk and country. Their frayed acoustic balladry shares more than a little in common with the surreal, elliptical not-quite-folksongs of Young's great solo records (think After the Gold Rush), though most listeners will probably be reminded instead of more contemporary folk- and country-derived singer/songwriter fare like Palace and Songs: Ohia. As with all three of the aforementioned artists, a dark, pregnant melancholy pervades Royal City's songs; sometimes the music feels foreboding, sometimes just intensely private and personal.

Band leader Aaron Riches's plaintive voice is the rudder that steers each delicate composition. Acoustic guitars, piano and organ, and spare percussion fill out the sound, with the occasional comfortable harmonica or poignant lap steel punctuating the mix occasionally like a shooting star or dog howling in the distance, making the songs feel vast, spacious. But for all the cool sorrow, there's a dry, sly humor running through Riches's lyrics, sometimes sardonic, sometimes surreal (again, see the Young comparison), often quite wonderful.

The group behind Riches features Jim Guthrie (also a singer/songwriter and leader of the Jim Guthrie Quintet), Nathan Lawr, Simon Osborne, and occasionally others. Riches usually plays acoustic guitar, but the rest swap instruments so much it'd be pointless to state who plays what. Royal City's marvelous debut LP, At Rush Hour the Cars, came out on Toronto-based Three Gut Records in 2000.

A year later in late 2001, Royal City returned with another great record, Alone at the Microphone, which significantly expands on the endearingly fragile folk-rock style the group explored on their first album. There's a strong country thread running through many of the songs, a bit of perky and strange acoustic pop, and some good old Buffalo Springfield-style Americana. It's another great record from a really promising young band.