Partner Are Queering Classic Rock

Anya Pearson (Dream Nails) talks the Canadian band’s thrilling sophomore album.

On Never Give Up, Partner are on a subversive mission: To deconstruct the classic rock songbook, scribble rainbows all over the margins, and make a shit ton of paper aeroplanes in the process. The result is 10 perfectly crafted pop-rock gems that fly dizzyingly high. Partner have queered classic rock, and it’s positively stadium-worthy. 

Formed in 2014 by best friends Josée Caron on guitar and Lucy Niles on bass, the queer Canadian rock outfit are having infectious levels of fun on Never Give Up, with musicianship that is near-virtuosic. 

There’s a moment early on where Niles offers a glimpse into one of Partner’s core challenges in making this record. In “Rock is My Rock,” she sings “Rock is my purpose, rock is my dream/But rock’s not as simple as it may seem” over Caron’s swaggering riffs. It’s quite a meta move to include a rock song about, well, rock songs. But Partner never stray too far into parody, though they may dally in the campier side of classic rock (think Queen). Instead, what Niles is implying is that rock as a genre demands subversion and dextrality to stay interesting. 

Luckily, the band have both in spades, on a thrilling sophomore record that demands to be witnessed live. Given things kick off with a gleeful, cascading introductory track “Hello and Welcome,” it’s an injustice the album is being released in a year where live music is effectively banned. The disappointment will be keenly felt by a band who sound eager to flex their muscles with an album stuffed full of road-ready tunes.                                                                                                                                                    

Caron is an exceptional lead vocalist, with a crystal-clear voice capable of both rock star yowls and that kind of Ariana Grande-esque oxygenated sound that lands hook after hook without hesitation. Steve Chaley’s production style is a good match for her varied and interesting delivery. And those mic-swapping antics, always such a favorite with Fleetwood Mac and punk rock forefathers Less Than Jake and Blink 182, allows her voice to combine seamlessly with Niles’s. The latter’s vocal tones make a fittingly husky counterpoint, bringing to mind Brody Dalle’s slacker deadpan. 

Famously, the band is serious about not being too serious. Half their strapline is “Partner is funny, but not a joke” (the other half is “Gay, but not for each other”). But on “Hello and Welcome,” they proclaim “We’re Partner/We’re not fooling around!” Gone are the skits liberally applied on their 2017 debut. Instead, they lean towards weightier themes in songs like “The Pit” and “Couldn’t Forget.” On the flip side, their music videos made with long-time collaborator Lesley Marshall, in which Niles is dressed as a mustachioed sound guy while Caron spoons honey out of a jar dressed as a giant bee, provide the band with the comedic outlet they evidently still crave. 

But Partner are still down for the fun times. On album highlight “Big Gay Hands,” a banger surely destined to make waves at your local queer club once they open their doors again (whenever that is), the pair tell a raucous story about spotting a hottie playing pool across a bar, and exactly what they’d like those big gay hands to do next. 

The bond between Simone TB on drums and Niles on bass sounds as natural as years touring together should. Their rhythm section creates endlessly inventive grooves so that the classic rock sound adored by Partner never grows tired. Recipients of the prestigious SOCAN Songwriting Prize in 2018, the band are obviously keen to show us their chops in a wide range of writing styles. Tracks like “Here I Am World” offers a window into a more syncopated, playful world reminiscent of “Always Like This” by indie rockers Bombay Bicycle Club, while “Good Place to Hide (At the Time)” conjures the epic soft rock of Fleetwood Mac. 

Listening to “Never Give Up” can often feel like viewing the world from a great height, aided by soaring pop choruses and a degree of rhythmic interplay that is constantly surprising. Lyrically, too, Caron ponders feeling “alone on the tightrope that is my life” on “Here I Am World,” while on “Roller Coasters,” the pair warn us, “Better get used to roller coasters/Life is one/If you think it’s the end, it’s only begun.” And at this queer rock fairground, there are twists and turns, tempo changes and false endings aplenty; delicious moments where Caron shreds furiously until the rhythm section pulls out abruptly and time is suspended. But Partner are just playing with you. It’s not the end of the song. Your guts catch up with your feet and you keep riding.          

Also, when I say Caron can shred, I mean she can shred. The kind of fretboard fire that makes you lean back your head at a show, scrunch up your face and go “oooh” appreciatively under your breath. Favoring a Gibson 1969 SG instead of her Les Paul road dog, she skitters across the country-rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd, confidently dispatching sheer acrobatics comparable to AC/DC’s Back in Black and the fattest pentatonic riffage of Led Zeppelin, particularly on songs like “Crocodile.” 

But rock’s not as simple as it may seem. Never Give Up also includes a song “Honey” that at least in part, is a commentary on the band’s experiences as female musicians, specifically Caron being constantly asked about her instrument by strangers (“Is that what I think it is?”). Guitar heroics aside, “Honey” is a powerful reminder that being a queer, female musician is never straightforward. It is a political act. 

A queer take on classic rock isn’t a new feat — just look at UK-based band Personal Best’s “classic rock for tragic lesbians.” But there’s space for both. On their excellent 2019 record What You At, Personal Best were catching feelings, but Partner are throwing a party instead. Hello and welcome.   

Dream Nails are a punk force to be reckoned with. The hotly-tipped band was founded by feminist activists in 2015, mixing unapologetically political content with pop punk joy. The female fourpiece have built a reputation across the UK, Europe and Scandinavia for their riotously feel good live shows.