The Dears, Astoria, London

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The Independent Culture

It would have been a perfect way to finish as the drummer flailed and the guitarist on tiptoes seemed about to lift off. Even a crunching bass sound added to the crescendo. Yet the Montreal sextet were only on their fourth song and set to drain themselves and us of all energy.

Maybe it was required in a bumper year for Canadian acts. Having had to postpone their tour earlier this year because of a family tragedy, The Dears had been upstaged by the equally baroque strains of Arcade Fire. And only this week, Black Mountain were in town to rehash Led Zeppelin's chunky riffs with wit and panache.

On last year's breakthrough album, No Cities Left, The Dears had matched them with that mix of fragile beauty and righteous passion belief peculiar to isolated cliques that stand up against the status quo. And while those aforementioned bands existed as single-minded collectives, The Dears were the brainchild of the frontman, Murray A Lightburn. Despite glowering centre stage, the singer was softly spoken and, given the chance, ruled with a quiet authority.

When his band reined themselves in, Lightburn revealed himself as an engaging lyricist. His very personal "The Second Part", in which he describes killing time in a bar, waiting for an ex to show, had us hanging on every word. On record, you could be irritated by similarities to Damon Albarn, though in the flesh his rich tones gave the stories extra weight. The vocalist's performance, half deep soul and half wry disengagement, should have been enough to carry the show.

Just when you were getting entranced, though, the band would crank up once more. On "Pinned Together, Falling Apart", weak string sounds from the keyboards were submerged by the guitarist's increasingly overwrought solos, so the sense was lost that The Dears combined the best of British indie rock with a Gallic pop sensibility. Better came from a new, summery number that the band had written on the road without the time to overegg its arrangement. Here, Lightburn's call to arms was counterpointed by deadpan vocals from the two female keyboardists perched on a pedestal above.

"End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story" was a refreshing change, while to close their set the simple organ stabs and handclaps of "Heartless Romantic" brought to mind the same light touch of Belle and Sebastian's best tunes. Tellingly, both numbers came from records that pre-dated the group's current album.

Although his voice spoke volumes, Lightburn was withdrawn between songs. Only at the end did school-marm keyboardist Natalia Yanchak come forward to reveal her midriff bump and the singer explained. "We're counting down to our final gig. Then we go home to have a baby and make another record. We'll be back next year." Wishful thinking maybe, but such idealism makes The Dears so vibrant - and infuriating.

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