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Montreal band adds hint of ABBA to its electropop

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Catherine McCandless sounds like a kid on Christmas Eve when she answers her phone.

The co-founder/frontwoman of Montreal synth-pop outfit Young Galaxy has just piled into the van with her bandmates, husband/co-founder Stephen Ramsay, Stephen Kamp, Matthew Shapiro and Andrea Silver, eager to return to the road in support of this year's Polaris Prize-shortlisted Ultramarine.

Their excitement makes sense. Ultramarine is a glimmering electropop opus that sees Young Galaxy at the height of its powers, easily its most focused and refined outing yet.

And according to McCandless, the album is also an absolute blast to play live.

"When we recorded this album, we decided to take what we were enjoying from the show into the studio," she explains. "The live show provided the bedrock of the recordings, which made the translation back to the stage easier."

That's in stark contrast to how Young Galaxy's last album, 2011's Shapeshifting, came together. For that effort, the band wrote and recorded the songs at home in Montreal before sending them across the ocean to Swedish electro wunderkind Dan Lissvik of the electronic duo Studio, a producer Young Galaxy admired but never met. Nine months later, the band heard its completed album for the first time, via Skype. Shapeshifting marked dramatic departure; the swooning dream pop of Young Galaxy albums past was replaced by sophisticated electropop with an icy Scandinavian sensibility.

The band liked what it heard and knew it wanted to work with Lissvik again, "but didn't know we wanted to do it in Sweden," McCandless says with a laugh. Schedules aligned, however, and Young Galaxy spent a month in Gothenburg, working in Lissvik's studio. And since the band members were interested in further exploring their love of pop music, the country that produced ABBA provided a safe place to do that.

"We all really enjoy a lot of pop music, and it's a dirty word here because it's associated with mainstream stuff," McCandless says. "It loses its respectability in North America, which isn't fair, actually. There's a more intellectual appreciation of pop in Sweden. It has those expected patterns and harmonized choruses, but those are the things I love."

Ultramarine displays a similarly intellectual appreciation of pop music. It's a hook-heavy, dance-floor-ready outing driven by propulsive, kinetic beats. The record doesn't have the glossy veneer of a Top 40 chart-topper, however; there's something dark, something sinister, lurking below the shimmering surface.

That's thanks to McCandless' vocals, which are at the forefront of this album. The singer uses her voice as another instrument, communicating by using sounds as opposed to words.

"We were already committed to stepping into a taboo area with pop music," she says. "We knew we wanted to take the emphasis out of the meaning of a lyric and more emphasis on syncopation. We always want to communicate something, it just might not be through a lyric."

That said, there are themes of maturing and growing up that run through the record. The band doesn't deal in pastel-coloured nostalgia, though; Ultramarine is more like dark chocolate than cotton candy. "It's bittersweet, for sure," McCandless says.

No track on the album sums up that mood better than opener Pretty Boy, about idealistic young lovers who find themselves in an unfamiliar city. "We were each other's only family," McCandless sings. "And I know you feel isolated/and I feel what you won't say." The song was inspired by Patti Smith's autobiography Just Kids.

"The feelings she was talking about were so familiar to us," she says. "The way she articulated the effort to make life around creative work -- which is so financially unfulfilling -- was so inspiring."

For McCandless and Ramsay, building a life around music has been incredibly fulfilling from a creative standpoint, in large part because of their willingness to take risks. Ultramarine is a tremendous reward.

"It feels like a big change again," McCandless says of the album. "It's the way we need to work right now. We like the challenge of something that's changing all the time, things that feel risky. It always keeps your perspective fresh."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2013 C1

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Updated on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 6:50 AM CDT: Adds video

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