“Our house is burning,” sings local folk-rock band Canada on its debut CD, This Cursed House. “When the trees go, we go too. When the birds go, we go too.”

I like to know that twenty-something kids are raging about the planet and the mess they’re inheriting. But the feeling I get from Canada is more sad than mad, more fearful than forceful, more disappointed than disaffected. Most of their songs have a dirgelike quality, as if dragged down by heavy hearts and solemn minds. The overlay of two cellos to the traditional lineup of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard adds depth and darkness that greatly strengthens the tunes as well as the gloom.

Fortunately, the band members also see beauty on this cursed planet, and other songs feel like a walk in fallen leaves. Tight harmonic singing, acoustic strumming, and the frequent appearance of a childlike glockenspiel and simple Melodica give these tunes a sweet innocence. One track even features a manual typewriter as the percussion instrument. Slight influences of Celtic, klezmer, and bolero styles provide added complexity.

Even when Canada’s music goes dark and dreary, it’s not dissonant. It’s easy to like, because there’s little provocative or challenging going on. The songwriters have an ear for a good melodic line, and they’ve written several that quickly become familiar. It’s not dance music in the same way that Neil Young isn’t dance music. The song structure may be missing the hooks and surprises that such pondering pieces need, but Canada will get there with more experience.

Talent oozes from the seven band members, five men and two women (the cellists) who hail from Ann Arbor and Ferndale. Recognized as a new musical talent, Canada has been invited to perform at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City in November. In live performances, everyone seems to play more than one instrument (I even caught a cellist hitting the cymbal with her bow), their vocals are usually spot on and well blended, and the members trade off the lead role onstage. Their all-original material doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.

The trouble is that while This Cursed House starts out with some upbeat numbers, it grows progressively more plodding and lonely with each track, and the players don’t seem to know when to stop riffing on a line and change direction. Thankfully, their live show is more energetic than the CD and inspires local fans with frequent call-and-response moments. The band bounces around on stage, and the cellists lean into their instruments with synchronized bowing. But after a while, Willie Nelson would tell ’em, “Pick up the tempo just a little and take it on home.”

Canada opens for French Kicks at the Blind Pig on Sunday, November 12.

[Review published November 2006]