Hooks from the Highlands

What is it about life in Glasgow that inspires such catchy music? During the last few decades, the largest burg in Scotland has supplied some of the most resplendent hooks on the international market. From the brisk balladry of Belle & Sebastian to the soaring strings and sumptuous coos of Camera Obscura, and on to the kinetic riffs and choruses of rock bands like Franz Ferdinand and Glasvegas, the city overflows with infectious gems.

And now Chvrches etches its name onto the ever-expanding list. After a few singles and small platters, the synth-pop trio emerged this year with The Bones of What You Believe, an LP debut elevated by buoyant complexity, enormous emotions, and the airy belts of singer Lauren Mayberry. Such electronic bombast is far from uncommon. Groups like Passion Pit and M83 have have become festival favorites with similar tactics. These success stories, along with the pop luminaries looming around its hometown, helped inspire Chvrches to throw its hat into the ring.

“One of the factors that influenced [us] was playing in bands for five or six years where people were just standing there stroking their beards,” offers Iain Cook. He and Martin Doherty handle the majority of the trio’s instrumentation and production, while Mayberry provides and sings most of the words.

“We’d been listening to a lot more melodic music,” he continues. “I hesitate to use the word ‘pop,’ but we were listening to a lot more pop music individually and getting really excited by it and getting really excited by the fact that a lot of the songwriting was getting to a point where there was a little bit of a renaissance. Even some of the bigger artists, like Britney Spears and Katy Perry, they’re actually coming out with some fantastic, undeniably great songs. Those weren’t the main artists that influenced us, certainly, but we wanted to make music that was more immediate.”

Their previous experience in the Glasgow scene — Cook’s stint with Aereogramme, Doherty’s session work with the Twilight Sad — focused more on texture than tunefulness, and those intricacies show through in their new endeavor. Some reviews, a glowing write-up from Pitchfork.com among them, praised their music as a compromise between the modern grit of the city’s electronic contingent and the accessible verve of its pop devotees. Cook says that the group did discuss such fusion as they began to write songs in the fall of 2011, but their motivation had more to do with mood than connecting disparate scenes.

Chvrches’ songs succeed thanks to well-managed tension: the uplifting urgency that masks Mayberry’s consistently dark imagery, the coarse distortion that clouds their jubilant synths. Achieving that balance is the band’s primary focus.

“If there was anything that defines our songwriting, I would say that that’s exactly it,” Cook says. “It’s about that contrast, that push-and-pull tension between not just the dark and the light, but the happy and the sad, the angry and the peaceful, the sweet and the sour. It’s all about tension. In music and art, things that are kind of cut-and-dry one way or another are less interesting than things that have that tension.”

“Lies,” the first song they posted to the Internet, grinds its gears with burly synthesizers that become punishing in the outro. But Mayberry’s vocal breezes through undeterred, the delicate garnish that keeps Chvrches’ density from imploding. Elsewhere, the singer escalates anxiety rather than diffusing it: The sleek keyboards and galloping drum loops on “Gun” communicate elation, a mood that she matches with a luminous delivery. But her words — “You stuck in the knife/ That you held at my back” — relate a tale of betrayal and subsequent vengeance.

Her ability to thread these emotional needles is the lynchpin of Chvrches’ appeal, allowing them to reach for heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity without forsaking the fears and the doubts, the darker feelings that someone singing along might be striving to defeat.

“We’re really, really lucky to have found someone with a voice like hers,” Cook admits. “Martin and I had been writing stuff for maybe a couple of weeks before we got Lauren into the studio, and we hadn’t really met her. Lauren’s voice, it just amplified everything, every nuance. She just has that kind of voice. When you hear her singing those words and those melodies, there’s just something in the character of her voice. That’s one of the real strengths of the album: It’s personal, and it’s powerful. Because of her.”

Chvrches plays The Orange Peel on Saturday, Nov. 30. 9 p.m., $18/$20. Photo by Eliot Hazel.


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