If I ask you to name the biggest duo in 2000s rock music, you are likely to mention either The White Stripes or The Black Keys, both of whom came to prominence trading in bluesy garage rock. Thinking about modern rock duos in general, newer UK acts such as Drenge and Slaves might come to mind, but those first two acts are really the only heavyweight duos of the past fifteen years. Shaped by the relationship of just two people, duos tend to feel more intense and intimate than solo projects or full bands. On the flipside, they risk sounding thin or slight without more instruments in the mix. Yet one two-piece which has never struggled to deliver a dense sound is Canada’s PS I Love You.
Formed in 2006 in the city of Kingston, Ontario, with Benjamin Nelson on drums and Paul Saulnier on everything else (vocals, guitars, bass, general noise), PS I Love You have a far fuzzier and dirtier take on garage rock than Jack and Meg White. Their debut LP, Meet Me At The Muster Station, was released in 2010 after a slew of EPs and singles in preceding years. Despite high-profile coverage on indie rock websites and a spot on the longlist for the Polaris Prize (Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury Prize), the album fell through the cracks and the band have never found much of an audience.
Describing their own sound as ‘heavy pop’, the duo obfuscate poppy guitar melodies with layers of noise and volatile vocals. The album’s second track, Breadends, exemplifies this ethos. After the gently building opener, Saulnier’s vocals wail and yelp over a simple guitar riff, with the defiant lyric “Give me all the fucking money” standing out as one of the only lines to rise above the haze. The fuzz occasionally drops away for brief guitar flourishes, like a vision of Saulnier’s technical prowess through the fug of a lo-fi aesthetic. The majesty of this track (and the album as a whole) is that it feels like it could fall apart at a moment’s notice; it feels wonderfully messy, and is all the more exciting for it.
Throughout the LP, Saulnier’s vocal delivery is so evocative and heartfelt that it almost doesn’t matter what he is actually singing. The lyrics are normally snapshots that offer a vague approximation of a feeling or a situation rather than rich stories. In this sense, picking out the odd comprehensible phrase or line is often the only way to grasp at a song’s subject. On CBEZ, Saulnier’s garbled yelling is utterly indecipherable, save for two words repeated over and over: “She did”, a phrase which can be interpreted in a million different ways. But, over an instrumental that sounds bigger than most full bands could muster, the intensity of Saulnier’s vocals convey emotion more vividly than lyrics ever could.
Butterflies & Boners, aside from having one of the greatest song titles of all time, is one of the few moments where the album breaks out into unfettered guitar worship. The last minute of the track sees Saulnier shredding out the cleanest solo of the entire album, slowly growing into an elated outro of harmonious oohs and driving drums. Although the instrumentals are coruscating throughout the album, Nelson and Saulnier never let a single element shine for too long. The duo recognise the power of brevity: no track on the album tops four minutes and they all follow pop structures. Rather than structural or melodic experimentation, the magic and inimitability of Meet Me At The Muster Station comes from the looseness of the playing, the untamed and unpredictable vocals, and the simple catchiness of their riffs.