Murray Lightburn, singer and sole songwriter for Canadian band The Dears, seems at war with his best and worst instincts on No Cities Left. The album couldn't possibly bring the contrast into sharper relief: The first half rushes in with unstoppably glorious, dense, emotive pop songs, while the second offers little more than a brick wall for the momentum. There's a strange, almost perfectly equatorial divide between five largely stunning songs, and six that might shine brighter in lesser company. As arranged, it's jarringly half-brilliant and half-blah.
Before the midpoint fizzle, though, Lightburn and his cast (a core of four play on the album, but the band is a six-piece now) do grandiose Brit-pop better than most actual Brits. Like a thousand songwriters before him, Lightburn has clearly pored over The Smiths' oeuvre, but unlike most of them, he manages to capture that strange mix of theatricality and passion without being overt. The Canadian press has even dubbed Lightburn "the black Morrissey," and Morrissey handpicked The Dears to open several shows in 2004. (Lightburn leaptand reportedly weptat the offer.) In all its morose loftiness, "Who Are You, Defenders Of The Universe" does the comparison some justice, but The Dears doesn't stop at The Smiths: It blends in bits of Blur on the terrific "Lost In The Plot."
And then, about 30 minutes into the overlong set, No Cities Left quickly begins to lose focus. Glorious bombast ("Expect The Worst/'Cos She's A Tourist") becomes indulgent, with pop devolving into needless guitar solos ("Pinned Together, Falling Apart"), strange duet diversions ("Never Destroy Us"), and overblown instrumentation ("Postcard From Purgatory"). Those willing to exercise more restraint than The Dears and clip No Cities Left off early may find one of 2004's most exciting and impassioned albums; those sticking around too long will wonder how the same ingredients can cook up such starkly contrasted servings of exciting and dull.