When I received the press packet for Canasta’s debut album, We Were Set Up back in 2006 it looked more like an invitation than a one sheet. Since most of the CD’s that stack up on my front porch weekly seem to blend in with one another in their anonymous orange envelopes, the contents inside wrapped in Xeroxed copies of reviews and form letters, Canasta’s embossed envelope and personalized note seemed unique from the start. It occurred to me that if the band had taken such time and care in their packaging, making it seem more like a gift than a mass mail-out, that surely the music they had recorded on the plastic disc inside had been achieved with as much, if not more, fine detail. I was not disappointed.
The band is made up of six members and a plethora of instruments including Jeremy Beckford on guitar and vocals, John Cunningham on keyboard, clarinet and vocals, Elizabeth Lindau on vocals and violin, Matt Priest on vocals, bass, trombone and percussion, Josh Schnable on piano and vocals, Colin Sheaff on drums and vocals. The outcome is full, layered, chamber pop. Oft compared The Decemberists and Arcade Fire and scores of other sophisticated songwriters; the band has been making music together since 2002 when four of the current members landed in Chicago after college. After releasing their EP Find the Time in 2003, they entered North Branch Studio, home to Smog and Jeff Tweedy, to record their debut full-length album which was released to wide critical acclaim.
Canasta’s We Were Set Up is a brilliant collection of intelligent, compelling, ultra-melodic orchestral pop songs. After dropping it into my stereo for the first spin, it was not removed for the next three months. Even though it has been close to two years since I first received it, hardly a week goes by that I don’t still give it a spin. In the beginning, it was “Shadowcat” that I focused on. The song laments a broken relationship and how Jesus came between the protagonist and his lover. As a person that doesn’t claim any religion, I still found myself fascinated by the story and rarely grew tired of hearing it. The more upbeat “An Apology” was always a favorite too. Lately, I’ve been entranced with the melancholy of “Heads Hurt First” and “Just a Star.” Every time I think I have dissected the album from top to bottom I find something new to love about it, and that, to me, is what makes a great album.
When I first started doing my weekly radio show almost one year ago, the very first song I played was one “An Apology.” When the show aired I immediately received emails from many of my peers praising me on the show and relaying how surprised they were that they had not heard of the band, I kicked the show off with. Far too often, it seems, in the business of music you come across groups that you fall in love with but you fear might slip through the cracks. My biggest concern for the band is that they stay a cult fave and miss out on the breakout success many bands with far less talent have received as of late, and while that might even be preferable to some, in my opinion, it would be a tragedy. This band should be given the opportunity to make as much music as possible. I love my first Canasta album, but I can’t wait to hear the second, third and fourth.