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"You are a drug to me
I never ever thought it otherwise
And I love the lies you've told to me
While looking me directly in my eyes."
Before American singer-songwriter John Grant embarked on his creatively fascinating and critically acclaimed solo career, he spent all of nine years as the leader of the unjustly under-appreciated Denver/Colorado-based Alternative Rock band The Czars. John Grant has stated that he was never quite satisfied with the six studio albums, which The Czars released during their tenure, and that he doesn’t feel that he reached his full potential as a songwriter until he had written and recorded his superior debut solo album, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark, with the assistance of Texas-based Indie-Rock band Midlake. While Grant’s sentiment isn’t entirely unjustified, his unsentimental assessment of The Czars’ output/legacy is nonetheless too harsh and most likely tainted by the memories of a particularly difficult time in his life that was fuelled by drug and alcohol abuse.
Like any other career-spanning single-disc compilation, this Best Of doesn’t contain all of The Czars’ greatest songs, but there are several truly magical moments amongst these selected works. Best Of wisely excludes the band’s first two/lesser studio releases, concentrating instead on selections from their four best albums (2000’s Before…But Not Longer, 2001’s The Ugly People Vs The Beautiful People, 2004’s Goodbye, and 2006’s Sorry I Made You Cry), all released via the Indie label Bella Union (formed by Simon Raymonde, the former bassist of Cocteau Twins).
True to its title, Dave’s Dream has a very dreamy quality to it, with its crystal clear electric guitar sounds that shine as brightly as the stars in the night sky, and the lilting melody and swaying chorus that lull you into a tranquil state. Val starts off with heavy bass chords — or, possibly, a guitar replicating a thumping bass sound — a distinct motif throughout the whole song, whose instrumental accompaniment also features discreet dobro and sparkling xylophone. The heart-wrenching, dark acoustic ballad Drug is a metaphor for the addictive nature of love. In this case: bad love. An addiction that can be near-impossible to shake and recover from, like the constant struggle of a recovering addict (“You are a drug to me / I never ever thought it otherwise / And I love the lies you've told to me / While looking me directly in my eyes…/ This is not ecstasy, but it's better than cocaine”): a recurring theme that would even resurface on John Grant’s solo albums, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark and 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts.
Side Effects is extremely intense, exploding like a cascade of fireworks in the shape of distorted, abrasive guitars that perfectly capture the subject matter of emotional abuse (“Do you know the heart? / Do you know that it can be destroyed? / You can make it go away / You can make it shrivel up and die”) and also the defiant anger when you’re on the receiving side (“Take a look at me / Give me everything you've got / If it's not enough / Make me everything you're not”). The melodic Killjoy is not your typical Pop song, with its diverse selection of instruments, ranging from a trumpet, castanets, and Spanish-style acoustic guitar, to a keyboard that sounds slightly like an accordion. Equally smooth and catchy, if not more so, is Paint The Moon, a mid-tempo track floating along on a bed of assertively stroked whispers, gently strummed acoustic guitars, and energetically pounding bass.
Rolling piano licks opens Little Pink House, a reflective, trumpet-infused, Jazz-tinged ballad, a smoky duet with Denver-based Jazz singer Julie Monley that ranks among the most heartfelt and engaging compositions in The Czars’ song catalogue. The Czars hit their stride with their third album, 2000’s Before…But Not Longer, and the following two albums, 2001’s The Ugly People Vs. The Beautiful People and 2004’s Goodbye, and it’s these releases that contain all of their best works. Still, Best Of is a very solid sampler of some of the most exquisite songs The Czars recorded and a very good starting point.