Conceived in Lindsay, Ontario, but born in Toronto, The Strumbellas are equal parts small town dream and big city gumption. It’s strange, perhaps, that Canada’s biggest city is home to its alt-country scene, but The Strumbellas rebel yell is a natural extension of the sound honed by Toronto stalwarts Royal City, The Sadies, Cuff the Duke, The Wilderness of Manitoba, and One Hundred Dollars. Principal songwriter Simon Ward likes to say that his heart is in his hometown but his head is in the city, or vice versa. He’s not sure which.
Sensitive singer-songwriters beware: this ain’t your meemaw’s country music. The band brings wheat field harmonies and arena-ready thunder to back rooms and festival stages alike, sounding bigger and louder than any band with a banjo deserves to sound. Folk wisp and country twang are nowhere to be found as the seven-member band pounds out a bluegrass-inspired indie rock that rivals punk and hardcore for sweat, blood, and ruckus.
All this energy, however, is in the service of something even larger: the big pop hook. Ward often says he doesn’t want to make music for other musicians, and so he stuffs his thunderous country stomp with stick-in-your-head verses and monumental choruses. Along the way he details more than just love lost and won, with lyrics ranging from God to go-getters, and the little bit of life we get to lead before we’re gone.
The Strumbellas have perfected a story arc that’s summed up in the title of their new album, “Hope.” Each song begins with a confession of flaws and fears: “I know it gets harder every single day/I know my darkness might never go away,” Simon Ward sings at the start of “We Don’t Know.” Then the band cues up a folksy, foot-stamping tune that builds momentum all the way up to a huge, happy singalong chorus — which might turn out to be the same confession recast as an affirmation. Mr. Ward’s voice often starts out nearly alone, scratchy and shaky; by the end of the song, he’s leading a multitude. It’s an arc of reassurance through community, a promise that we can get through this together. It’s as good-hearted as all get-out.
It’s also, for United States listeners, suspiciously similar to the approach of the Lumineers in their folksy, foot-stamping 2012 hit “Ho Hey.” But that may be a matter of national borders. The Strumbellas are from Canada, and released their debut EP in 2009, two years before the Lumineers’ debut. “Hope” is their third album; their second, “We Still Move on Dance Floors” from 2013, won a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy equivalent) for roots and traditional album of the year. Both the Strumbellas and the Lumineers were part of the same surge of retooled, pop-savvy folk-rock.
Although Mr. Ward proclaims, “I put a banjo up into the sky/It keeps us moving,” in “Shovels and Dirt,” and the band’s six-member lineup includes a fiddle, the Strumbellas don’t confine themselves to “roots and traditional” sounds on “Hope.” Chimes, an orchestra and massed voices arrive almost immediately in “Spirits,” the album’s first single, which declares, “I don’t want a never-ending life/I just want to be alive while I’m here.” Elsewhere there are echoes of the E Street Band’s sustained synthesizers and arena-scale marches.
Between the giant, smiley singalongs, there’s a little more darkness than the band’s sound suggests. The verses grapple with impulses toward destruction and self-destruction. “If I weren’t so selfish/I could hear your calls for help,” Mr. Ward sings in “I Still Make Her Cry.” But it’s rarely long before another huge chorus arrives to banish all misgivings.
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