A Giant Dog are from Austin, TX. People call them a punk band. I’m not sure if that’s still true. In 2012, they burst onto the scene with their début album, Fight. This was an exciting album, based in the punk scene in Austin and in terms of their music. But, vocally, A Giant Dog have always been more. Sabrina Ellis fronts the band, but she often shares the vocals with guitarist Andrew Cashen. And, frankly, they are a melodic couple. They do more to hearken the Beach Boys than they do the Sex Pistols. That is a beautiful thing and that made A Giant Dog a band to watch. In 2016, they signed to Merge Records, the North Carolina heavyweight indie label run by Superchunk’s Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. There is a symmetry in this, in that A Giant Dog’s sped up cacophonic rock’n’roll owes a lot to Superchunk, particularly in Ellis’ vocals, which can sound like McCaughan. You know who else is on Merge? The Arcade Fire. Neon Bible was the Montréal juggernaut’s second album, released in 2007.
I remember vividly the release of Neon Bible, given the incredible success of Arcade Fire’s début, Funeral, there were various schools of thought in Montréal as to what our most famous sons and daughters (I mean, after countless prime ministers, captains of industry, William Shatner and Leonard Cohen, to say nothing of hockey players) had planned next. Funeral was a stone cold fucking masterpiece, and I belonged to the camp that kind of wished Arcade Fire would break up without releasing any more music. Neon Bible, then, was a wonderful surprise. It was another masterpiece from the acoustic thrum of album opener through the frantic fury of ‘Keep the Car Running’ and all the way to closer ‘My Body is Cage.’
A black mirror is what our phones are when they’re turned off, they reflect back to us. And Win Butler began the album with some of his best lyrics:
I walk down to the ocean
After waking from a nightmare
No moon, no pale reflection
Black mirror, black mirror
Shot by a security camera
You can’t watch your own image
And also look yourself in the eye
Black mirror, black mirror, black mirror
I know a time is coming
All words will lose their meaning
Please show me something that isn’t mine
But mine is the only kind that I relate to.
The Arcade Fire have been up and down since, of course. But that was a masterpiece. And so, here we are with A Giant Dog covering the entire album, cover-to-cover, faithfully. How did this come about? Well, Ellis says that Merge asked them to be part of their subscription series, gave them a budget and told them to cover whatever album they wanted. And so, upon Cashen’s insistence, they took on their most famous bandmates. They learned the album quickly, two five-hour rehearsals in Ellis’ living room (she must have generous neighbours, I once lived next door to the frontman of a rock band in Montréal, I wanted to kill him most of the time). And then they headed into the studios.
The result is an odd sort of brilliance. Like I said, this is a faithful covering of the whole album. A Giant Dog infuse the album with even more urgency than the Arcade Fire did, and they speed it up. I don’t think people realize how furious an album this was in the first place, but A Giant Dog not only take that on, they up it a notch. The also cut the length of the album. Whereas the Arcade Fire released a 47-minute album, A Giant Dog give us 39 minutes.
Ellis’ voice is very different than Win Butler’s. She sings both high (and sounds like McCaughan) and she sings low, and sounds like no one but herself. Her Texas accent is more pronounced than Butler’s (I suppose all those years in Montréal softened his). But her voice is so unlike his that she almost makes the songs her own. This is particularly true on ‘Intervention,’ where her voice takes over the song in a way that Butler’s never could.
Perhaps the most bizarre moment of the album comes on ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,’ the first half of which Régine Chassagne sings on the original. And after hearing Ellis’ voice front a sped up version of the album to now, it is somewhat jarring for hear her step in for Chassagne. And she kind of mangles the French lyrics of the song. But. This is really the only negative thing I can say about this album.
‘Ocean of Noise’ is a particular highlight, because this is the song where A Giant Dog take complete ownership, turning the track into a vaguely Jethro Tull-influence flute workout, over an acoustic guitar and bass, they layer the choir vocals, guitar lead.
On the original album ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ was perhaps the most urgent of all the tracks, as Butler imagined himself working a shit job in NYC (or some such generic city). And yet, A Giant Dog up the paranoia, up the urgency and terror of this song, as Ellis’ voice veers on a breakdown as she screams out the lyrics, almost like she’s running from the walls closing in on her.
This is all interesting to me, because Ellis reports that covering this album was kind of like being an actor taking on a role. And I suppose that’s the only thing that A Giant Dog could do, stepping into the shoes of one of the most iconic indie bands of the 21st century. I admire their chutzpah. And this album is wicked good. It’s been on steady rotation around here for the past week.
Matthew Barlow is a recovering academic. A Montrealer by birth, he has lived all over Canada and the United States. His natural affinities are with his hometown of Montreal, Vancouver, and his current home in rural Western Massachusetts. His first book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood (he did not come up with that subtitle) was published in June 2017 by UBC Press. He is currently working on a new book that examines childhood, memory, and trauma. His real passion, though, is music. He is also an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool FC. When not screaming at the TV, he can be found running, playing with his dogs, or hiking through the hills of Western Mass.