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Disc of the week: Manitoba's Imaginary Cities

The soul/pop/rock duo Imaginary Cities

Temporary Resident Imaginary Cities (Hidden Pony)

Really, from Winnipeg? Hard to imagine. On its debut long-player, the new soul/pop/rock duo Imaginary Cities conjures music from eras and places different from Manitoba, no offence.

The singer is Marti Sarbit, and while what she does is not overly emotional or acrobatic, it is often easily sublime and evocative - bluesy, barefoot and nasal on occasion; sometimes all white satin gloves and like the Supremes.

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Be clear that the band's sound is essentially modern and urban; this isn't retro for retro's sake. But there's something timeless at work: catchy melodies, funky beats, affecting chord changes and an outstanding way with pre-choruses.

The pair of Sarbit and producer/multi-instrumentalist Rusty Matyas came together by happenstance. And straight out of the sudden, comes occasional pop-song brilliance.

The title track is the album's crunchiest, most insistent piece. "Hanging at the station, waiting for the final ride," sings Sarbit, her Simone-like chirp somewhat flattened. "Time passed by, and it's getting harder to pretend."

Lyrics by and large don't grab you; spiritual themes tend to reflect passages of time, journeys and transitions from lightness to dark - sometimes all in the space of a few lines. On the Motown-from-the-mountain-top Say You, Sarbit is at her most commanding and versatile, preaching over an unbending Funk Brothers groove and juicy organs. "Listen what I say, I'm not tellin' no lie," she demands. "Count your blessings every day, no tellin' how much time." And yet there's a sense of doubt in her own mind: When her mouth sings "I say, I say, I say I'm fine," her defeated tone suggests otherwise.

The sombre Calm Before the Storm moves languidly to a darkened electric piano motif, with Sarbit murmuring through a rain-dropped window pane. The arrangement is novel, with a sparse, clanky electro-beat introduction, some subtle he-she harmonies and a leanly blown horn exit.

Fuller, brassier horns introduce That's Where It's At, Sam, a response to soul-singer Sam Cooke and a drama-struck piece of bouffant-haired torch-pop right out of the sixties. Manitoba Bossa Nova floats with class, recalling the lilt of Dionne Warwick. Sarbit and Matyas, it is clear, know the way to San Paulo.

Temporary resident, suggesting an impermanent state. The distinct singer Sarbit can be compared in voice to the fleeting Esther Phillips or the soon-to-be forgotten Duffy, the Welsh songbird who, disappointed with the flat sales of her second album, has threatened retirement. Bye-bye Duffy; hello Sarbit and Imaginary Cities. Stick around as long you like, or as long as we'll have you. That's where it's at.

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