This band’s name makes me think of my neighbourhood and its healthy populations of both pugs and crows. The pugs are roly-poly and happy to be out for a walk; the crows are often ornery and will dive at your head during nesting season. In terms of temperament, The Pugs and Crows Band fall somewhere between the two creatures—neither eager to please nor randomly hostile. Their music swings gracefully between moods jaunty and despondent.
Slum Towers is the work of composer/guitarists Cole Schmidt (from Cortez the Killer, reviewed here) and Clayton Murray, along with Russell Sholberg (bass), Ben Brown (drums) and violinist Meredith Bates. The 11 instrumentals and one vocal track feature a lot of tasty playing, but the approach is clean and careful. They will not pin you against the wall with screaming solos. Each tune establishes a strong theme right off the bat.
The haunting, placid opener “’Lil Red Spiders” immediately reminds me of The Dirty Three, but that direction doesn’t return until the superb “Ballet for BC” (featuring a beautiful bowed solo from Sholberg) late in the album. The rest of the record stumbles into some exotic grottoes. Tracks like “Two Tastesless [sic] Italians” and “Ramadan” have a gypsy air that reminds me of Estradasphere without that band’s speed metal digressions. “Turducken,” one of the longer tracks, has a desert caravan feel, a waltz chorus, and a more abstract, improvised section to heave the whole thing off balance. Even at its bounciest, Slum Towers carries a sombre dignity.
The only non-instrumental is “Scarecrow Shadow,” a macabre, sepia-toned ballad that sits in the middle of the album. Sung wonderfully by Debra-Jean Creelman, I can picture it playing over the opening credits of a David Lynch movie.
The Pugs and Crows Band finds an unsettled and unsettling territory between rock and jazz—a sound that has a gritty elegance, with none of the funky elevator-music cheese that “fusion” often entails. An interesting, enjoyable new cross-breed unleashed on Vancouver's musical landscape.