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"Oh, cool! A Curious George doll!" Dears frontman Murray Lightburn exclaims. "I've been wanting one of these for my kid for ages." He pauses. "Sorry about that I got sidetracked. I'm in a pharmacy right now in Winnipeg."
These are not exactly the first words you expect to hear from a charismatic crooner such as Lightburn. Needless to say, imagining him pushing a stroller around a drugstore is hilarious. At the same time, though, it's a perfectly natural fit for Lightburn, who comes across as just an ordinary guy with an extraordinary job. Although he leads the Dears, a Canadian sextet that has amassed a mantel full of awards over the past two years, Lightburn's really not all that different from other newlywed fathers his age. Well, except for the fact that he and his wife, Dears keyboardist Natalia Yanchak, spend most of their time on the road with their 13-month-old daughter and the rest of their band.
"It works out really great for both me and my wife," Lightburn says. "We love it, because we're always together. It's not always glorious in every way, but I'm feeling a lot more fulfilled in my life, that's for sure."
Perhaps, but you'd never gather that from listening to the Dears' darkly despondent confessional pop. Lightburn and a loose-knit group of friends Yanchak, drummer George Donoso III, bassist Martin Pelland, keyboardist Valerie Jodoin-Keaton, and guitarist Patrick Krief came together in Montreal in 1995 and crafted a style that steadily garnered a cult-like following. Perhaps because of the vocalist's warm, mellifluous croon and his choice of subject matter, more than a few critics have dubbed Lightburn, horrifically, the "black Morrissey." For his part, Lightburn does seem to write almost reflexively from the point of view of the outcast. But he does so with a stoicism that says this is just his fate; Lightburn's not whining or wallowing in self-pity. Still, for as much as they evoke the Smiths, the Dears have more expansive roots in Leonard Cohen's brooding but affectionate candor, early-'90s Jesus and Mary Chain, the lounge stylings of Costeau, the soul-pop of Roxy Music, and even Paris cabarets of the 1930s.
The Dears' most recent release, Gang of Losers, is full of the introspection and clever self-deprecation that can be found on any of their previous three studio albums. But this time around, there is an undeniable energy and lightheartedness to the proceedings. Even so, Lightburn can't resist inserting some heavier lyrics on some of Losers' most hopeful, upbeat tunes. For instance, in "Ticket to Immortality," which opens the album and sounds initially like a soaring song of hope the chorus is "The world is really gonna love you" Lightburn adds, "I'll hang out with all the pariahs/Everyone is almost done with me."
Another cut is attracting quite a bit of attention. "Whites-Only Party" contains tongue-in-cheek references to white liberal guilt and ancient racial fears: "We ain't here to steal your women/Well, at least that wasn't the plan." But again, despite the baiting, biting theme, what Lightburn is really talking about is the insider-versus-outsider dynamic.
"Well, I think the thing about that song is that, on the surface, most people are going to want to talk about the literal subject matter," Lightburn explains, "when in the context of the record, it's just another example or another parable that is just representative of that exclusivity that people hope to overcome. I write from that context because I'm writing that story about the whites-only party and trying to get into it. It's meant to be funny, but I think a lot of people feel there's a party they're not allowed into, and they don't know why they're not allowed in."
Lightburn's sentiment is particularly significant in light of the backlash spurred by Michael Richards' profanity-laced tirade against two black hecklers at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Clearly, the subject of race relations is still a complex and volatile issue. But Lightburn manages to bring some levity to the discussion.
"Race, of course, is going to be on a lot of white folks' minds, because they're feeling guilty for all of their sins," Lightburn says, then breaks into laughter. "Not like I haven't committed any... but the Michael Richards thing was fascinating. I'm a huge Seinfeld fan; anytime it's on in syndication, I watch it. Now I've created a new joke out of it: If you want to call somebody 'washed up,' you just say, 'He's probably out doing standup comedy, getting heckled by a couple of black guys. '"
That sense of humor can render Losers for all its dark moments and existential longing downright cheerful at times, which has some listeners suggesting that Lightburn has lightened up as a result of tying the knot, a notion he quickly deflects.
"Those are just things that happen in your everyday life," he points out. "If you got married, do you see it affecting your job? It's the same thing: I have to avoid worlds colliding all the time, just because I'm traveling this way with my family and the band. But as long as I keep the worlds from colliding, I don't see why it should have such an effect on the art that we make. Especially since it only happened to me. It's not like everyone in the band went out and got married."
And in reality, Lightburn and Yanchak's marriage only formalized what had been a ten-year relationship. If anything, being married adds to the sense of genuineness that Lightburn projects, both in his lyrics and his speech. While some people prefer to think of him as a latter-day Rimbaud pining away by candlelight in a stone chamber somewhere, he's really just someone who seeks the truth in the words he speaks and those he sings.
That honesty carries over to his relationship with fans. Lightburn and his bandmates regularly contribute to online blogs and journals on both TheDears.org as well as the act's MySpace page. Yanchak's entries, ruminating on the architecture, people, and gut-level feel of various cities to which the band travels, are especially engaging and personal. But that sense of approachability can also get the musicians more than they bargained for.
"I'm finding it a bit of a tightrope, because people misconstrue the blogs and the journal entries sometimes," Lightburn notes. "You've just got to be careful what you say sometimes, because people use that shit against you. In the past, we've done journal entries and people are able to comment after them, and we'll get a bunch of people saying, 'Oh, quit whining. You have a great life, blah blah blah.' And it's just like, 'You don't know my life, you fucking twat.' That's the thing that's really irritating about the blogs sometimes: People just say really nasty things sometimes, unfounded things."
In spite of the occasional crank spewing virtual venom, Lightburn is grateful to be doing something he loves while staying close to the ones he holds dear. "I feel very fortunate and lucky to do what I do," he concludes, "and to be able to do it the way I'm doing it."