The Stills - Without Feathers

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The Stills - Without Feathers

Without Feathers, Teeth, Legs: Nice-guy pop rockers’ sophomore effort rings clean, crisp and oddly subdued

’Round about the week they released their last album Logic Will Break Your Heart, The Stills played one of those 30-bands-on-a-bill shows for a radio station in Boston.

The kind where bands huddle backstage nodding politely to the morning-show slobs with an air of muted desperation while mentally cursing the marketing guys at the label for making them play yet another free show on an afternoon when they’d rather nurse hangovers and maybe write a song. Bright-eyed and with valiant enthusiasm, The Stills plowed unfazed through their set, at least until they reached “Still in Love Song,” the album’s emphatic lead single. Buzzing with energy, the band roared through the number to rapt applause and more than a few nodding heads. Suddenly there was a weird murmur and a shuffle in the front rows and a flurry of disarray as the band members looked at one another.

Pushing closer to investigate, it became clear: some guy in the front with more pocket money than alcohol tolerance had offered the band $500 to play the exact same song again—immediately after having just played it. Now this is the lead single from the debut album, mind you, the one that—should a band be lucky enough to last—will inevitably have to end pretty much every concert with for the better part of its musical career. And so, in that crazy flash of Benjamins, not only are they being asked to examine the balance between audience appreciation and raw pandering, between selling out and honoring their stronger material—they’re being asked to do this on the spot by some drooling boozehound.

And so, in one of the better moments of improvisation I’ve ever seen live, the band takes the guy’s money, hands it to the manager who promptly walks it over to the bar, and the band announces that everyone in the audience can drink on the house until the bounty runs out. They start the song again, play it straight for a while and then, without warning, turn out a strange but crisp reggae version of the remainder, finish the song and jump straight back into their regularly scheduled set. The Stills bought me a drink, and I bought their record.

It’s this general air of tastefulness and goodwill that makes you want to root for The Stills, even if—when you get right down to it—their body of work is solid and purposeful yet somehow under-realized. While stocked with skillful guitars, tuneful vocals and the occasional hook, Without Feathers feels oddly unassuming, a plain-vanilla modern-rock record hailing from a Montreal scene notable for adventurous eclecticism. Songs like “Helicopters” or “Halo the Harpoon” are uniformly pleasant and engaging as they pass, but don’t stick in your head for long. Maybe it’s the troubling familiarity of the vocals or the lack of sweeping choruses, but somehow the ghost of unnecessary restraint hovers over the whole affair. For a band that could easily have a magical pop-rock anthem for the ages welling in them, Without Feathers should’ve stretched to fly a bit higher.