We Were Set Up

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Chicago sextet Canasta can be called an indie pop band for good enough reasons, but on their debut album, We Were Set Up, they display both an ambition and a sense of range that any number of early 21st century American groups described in similar terms would be wise to follow. This doesn't mean in the overblown art statement sense either -- there's a brisk, wired tension from the start with the quick clip of "Microphone Song," but it's the subtle shifts throughout the song from quiet piano and crisp drums to a violin-led waltz and back, so much more than simple loud/soft/loud dynamics, that make it a real winner. The hourlong album moves in a similar vein overall, thanks in large part to the depth of the ensemble -- possessing both a keyboardist and a pianist gives the bandmembers a chance for interplay at many points (check out the introduction to the winning "Slow Down Chicago," perhaps the album's standout number), while clarinet and trombone also pop up, and that's not even counting the various guest performers' work (including Edith Frost, who appears on the mesmerizing cosmic country twang of "Just a Star"). It's rare that a rock band piling on the feedback can suddenly seem stunning in context, but when Canasta do that in "Heads Hurt Better" for the first time on the whole album that's exactly what happens. Lead singer Matt Priest's voice is clear and conversational, light but rarely strained, and often feeling like he should be doing a sweetly breezy soft-shoe routine, something the strong but easygoing rhythm section of Priest and drummer Colin Sheaff further nails. When Canasta slow into their ballads such as "Shadowcat," their abilities are equally clear, showing that their sense of understated tension can exist at that level as well.

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