“Be the reference.” That’s the mantra Yukon Blonde tacked up on the studio wall during the sessions for their fourth album, Critical Hit, and it emboldened them to rip up the indie rock playbook and embrace a synth-dazzled new sound that’s easy to love but difficult to pigeonhole. Now a decade into their career, Yukon Blonde are following no one except themselves.
Critical Hit began at a literal crossroads: after a tour, singer-guitarist Jeffrey Innes flew to Madrid to be with the woman he had met on tour in Spain, while his bandmates James Younger (bass), Brandon Scott (guitar), Rebecca Gray (keyboards) and Graham Jones (drums) headed back home to Vancouver.
This kicked off an artistic free-for-all, as Jeffrey spent the better part of the next year and a half wandering Madrid, penning lyrics in art galleries and chronicling the rise and fall of his relationship. “Everybody in Madrid was so inspirational,” Jeffrey remembers. “There are folk singers on the street and everybody believes they’re an artist. Being there, the pressure was off for writing music. I didn’t feel like I was writing for anything — I was just happy and inspired to make music.”
James also visited Spain — he initially stayed in a haunted 15th-century farmhouse across from Gibraltar, and then he joined Jeffrey in Madrid. Together, they worked on songs that were unabashedly pop, but without clear sonic reference points. Disco beats mingled with achingly nostalgic keyboard tones, while bittersweet breakup lyrics were sung in euphoric harmony.
“We would be at a cafe in Madrid, smoking and drinking beers, listening to demos and deciding what songs were going to go on the record,” James reflects. “Nothing was different except the location was completely absurd and amazing.”
The band reconvened on Canada’s West Coast, in a house on Galiano Island where they laid down the initial demo tracks, many of which ended up on the final record. They then took these tracks to Toronto with producer Thomas D'Arcy (Hannah Georgas, July Talk, The Sheepdogs) and captured two songs in Vancouver with Steve Bays (Hot Hot Heat, Mounties). The tracks were mixed by super-producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, M83, Phoenix).
The resulting 13 tracks push the envelope of 2015’s On Blonde even further, doubling down on that album’s electro-pop influences while still retaining the five-piece’s live spontaneity. Pop anthems like “Crazy” and “Summer in July” channel romantic longing via sublimely twinkling synths, while James takes the spotlight for the soulful falsetto vocals of “Cry,” and Brandon’s mournful “Dear Nancy” is laden with organic strings. “The Bluffs” and “Feeling Digital” are full-blown dance bangers that are guaranteed to explode during sweat-drenched shows. Although the band had written several straightforward radio singles during the sessions, these were left on the cutting room floor in favour of richer and melodically denser material. For the first time, Jeffrey shares frontman duties, with James and Brandon each singing two songs.
For Jeffrey, this is a breakup record, and the elegiac nine-minute closer “Ritual Off The Docks” overtly documents a couple’s final goodbye. Critical Hit’s title is both a cheeky nod to journalists and a reference to the emotional blow of lost love. Jeffrey says the title came from a Christmas shopping trip to a Dungeons & Dragons store: “I don’t know much about D&D, but I know that rolling a 20 is a critical hit — it’s the most damage you can do. And this album is about a breakup. It’s a critical hit to the heart.”
Critical Hit was inspired by emotional turmoil, but it’s nevertheless a joyful album that’s full of experimentation and discovery. Empowered by their DIY process and beholden to nothing except their own whims, Yukon Blonde have captured the purest version of themselves.