Tuesday, June 30, 2009

O Canada

Because Canada Day falls on a Wednesday and you need some cheering up about being cheated out of a long weekend, here’s something to ponder in your hammock tomorrow.

A couple of months ago, I was invited to cast a ballot for a new book project entitled The Top 100 Canadian Singles, author Bob Mersereau’s follow-up to his 2007 book The Top 100 Canadian Albums. The ballot was limited to 10 songs, of any genre and any era. I quickly made a shortlist of 30, songs that not only deserved classic status, but that meant a lot to me in some way and that I still don’t tire of hearing.

That made it easy to leave off a lot of obvious songs that either drive me nuts or I never have to hear again (“Takin’ Care of Business,” I’m looking at you—and remembering that scene in Don McKellar’s Last Night). I also avoided great songs from classic albums—albums whose status overshadows any individual song on the record (Joni Mitchell’s Blue). And on a similar note, there are a lot of my favourite Canadian artists whom I love for their overall output, and not just one song (Neil Young, Stompin’ Tom) that towers over all their others. Finally, I tried to keep the list to songs that were actually released as a single (or video, or “focus track”) in some form or another.

Much of this fails to be objective—how could it? see Carl Wilson’s take on the same task for a much broader list, as well as David Dacks's response—and so these are simply 30 Canadian singles that I couldn’t live without. Listed alphabetically by artist.

And for the love of God, don't judge them on their videos.

“Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire (2004).
The opening guitar melody and tinkling piano sound like curtains being parted on a stage, and the song only gets more cinematic from there. “Tunnels” is four minutes of slow build, keeping the bombast in check and maintaining tension throughout, until it finally explodes with Regine Chassagne’s ur-disco drumming and falsetto backing vocals echoing the opening melody. Win Butler’s voice sounds like he’s waking up from a long Montreal winter, from his childhood, from a spiritual slumber, crawling toward shafts of sunlight to sing golden hymns. This was the opening track on Funeral, as well as the first single, and it encapsulates everything that this band did so brilliantly at the time—and no matter how many cheap imitators tried to replicate this, the song has lost none of its revelatory power.

“Up on Cripple Creek” – The Band (1969).
Sure, “The Weight” is covered more often. And Robbie Robertson wrote better songs. But in terms of performance and four flawless minutes, divinity is in the details here: Levon Helm’s southern drawl, the quiet punctuation of the piano and guitar, the affectionate ode to a “drunkard’s dream, if I ever did see one,” the closing yodels. But ultimately, only two things matter in “Cripple Creek”: Garth Hudson’s bullfrog clavinet, and Helm’s funky backbeat—which is even more awesome when you realize that he never once touches a cymbal or opens his hi-hat for unnecessary flair (how Canadian—ironic, because he’s the only American in the band), which exemplifies everything that people love about Helm, the gentleman drummer.

“Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” – Blue Rodeo (1993).
On the surface, Blue Rodeo have dozens of songs like this: the long, slow unfold (“Lost Together”), the Beatle-y chords set to Canadiana country songs, the impeccable harmonies between Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy. But it’s the lyric here that sets it apart, nailing that moment in time between tragedy and acceptance, those stunned moments of silence as you lie soaking in stasis, caught in a suspended state, “standing transfixed before the streetlight/ watching the snow fall on this cold December night.” The fatal event in question was both inevitable and yet unbelievable—it “comes as no surprise” though he “never thought this could happen.” This is such a universal moment—the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, a death—and yet I can’t think of another song that expresses this so perfectly, with equal parts pain, bemusement and resilience. And yes, it’s made me cry more than once.

“Lovers in a Dangerous Time” – Bruce Cockburn (1984).
Cockburn has plenty of songs to equal this one for poetry, passion and economy (“The Trouble With Normal,” “Tokyo” and “Stolen Land” spring to my mind immediately). And maybe it’s because this song is the opening salvo to his greatest album, or maybe it’s because it hit me during a formative year, or maybe because it can make me weep unexpectedly when the mood hits—but from the title on down, I find this to be Cockburn’s most affecting set of lyrics, set to one of his most memorable pop songs. The arrangement is bare-bones (stark drumming, mostly just bass and snare; synched rhythm guitar and bass; three-note guitar melody) to better serve a cavalcade of couplets that consistently link back to the title sentiment of experiencing ecstasy amidst chaos, of the power of the human spirit to overcome oppression.
It’s better in his own words:
“One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall/ the next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all.”
“Spirits open to the thrust of grace/ never a breath you can afford to waste.”
“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/ got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”
Enough said.

“Closing Time” – Leonard Cohen (1992). (link)
The sheer lyrical avalanche of this track is a marvel. It’s Cohen at his lustiest, growling and slurring while he spits out stanza upon stanza of hilarious couplets that are equally ankle-deep, submersive and subversive. What better lyric sums up the psyche of post-Berlin Wall Europe than this one: “Looks like freedom but it feels like death/ it’s something in between I guess.” It’s all set to the closest he’s ever come to country music, with the woozy violinist bending his notes and the backing vocalists sounding like they’re stumbling drunk around the dancefloor repeating the mantra “closing time, closing time, closing time, closing time.” He’s witnessing the end of his life, the end of his relationship, the end of the world as we know it, and realizes that there’s no better tonic than to raise another glass of acid-spiked cider.

“I Wish It Would Rain” – Cougars (recorded 1970, released 2006).
This single went entirely unheard upon its original release in the early ’70s, which is especially ridiculous when you consider how much radio stations were crying about not having enough CanCon to play in order to meet new federal broadcasting regulations. Maybe they didn’t think there were black people in Canada making music (don’t put it past them). Never mind: 35 years later, a Vancouver DJ and a Seattle record label dusted off this treasure and released it on an astounding compilation called Jamaica to Toronto, which contains over a dozen tracks that deserve to be in the Canadian canon. This, however, is the undisputed highlight. For starters, you can’t go wrong with the song itself, which was a 1967 hit for the Temptations. Add two powerhouse vocalists singing a duet: Jay Douglas and Salome Bey. Place a quietly insistent single guitar chord that chimes throughout the verses, atop a hybrid reggae/soul rhythm section. Just as the verses come to a close, gospel-inflected backing vocals and a Hammond organ take over the title refrain, just before the chorus kicks in with a Levon Helm backbeat and uplifting horn section. There you have it: four-and-a-half minutes of soul salvation, one of the best Motown covers ever recorded—and Canada let it slip through the cracks. This is a source of equal parts shame and pride.

“Gonna Get Close to You” – Dalbello (1983).
They certainly don’t put songs like this on the radio or video playlists anymore. Everyone was surprised to learn that The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” was about a stalker; no one was surprised that this 1983 Dalbello song was too (the Rob Quartly-directed video helped). This is the creepiest song to ever crack the Canadian Top 40, and yet in its structure and its melodicism it functions perfectly as a pop song. It opens with a sparse drum machine, the sound of a clock, and minor-key horror-movie keyboards before Dalbello starts whispering about “looking at shadows sweating on the wall.” She slowly turns up the intensity: at first there’s a heaving anxiety in the way she sings “each and every afternoon,” before she starts howling while describing: “You fumble for the keys/ I’m six or seven steps behind you.” Producer/guitarist Mick Ronson (Ziggy Stardust) swoops in and out of the action to build up tension—and if nothing else, this song is full of tension, from the taut rhythm to the Phillip Glass-like marimbas that percolate underneath the chorus. Dalbello’s operatic range serves her well in character here; even the one showboat-y vocal moment sounds like the cackle of someone whose grip on reality is vanishing before our ears. Too weird for many, too close to ’80s metal power ballad for others (I just found out it was covered by Queensryche (?)), this is a bold, daring and thrilling single—no wonder most Canadians have never heard it.

Some curious footnotes I unearthed in my cursory (i.e. Wikipedia) research:
“Since 2002, Dalbello has been the brand announcer voice for the Canadian cable news network, CBC Newsworld and additionally, her voice can be heard introducing CBC News anchor Peter Mansbridge on the network's flagship nightly news and current affairs program, The National. She also was featured on the theme song for the first three seasons of the television series Degrassi: The Next Generation.”

“This Lamb Sells Condos” – Final Fantasy (2006).
Very few political songs work outside of their original context. But you don’t have to have lived in Toronto during the condo boom of the last decade to find these lyrics hilarious, even if they seem on the surface to be taking cheap shots at a bald and bullying condo developer, “his seduction to the world of construction,” his “massive genitals” and marital disputes over impotency. The central piano riff is part Scott Joplin, part Nintendo video game theme; harpsichords and violins drive the rest of the song, and it’s to Owen Pallett’s credit that he can arrange such a successful pop song with these tools. The coda takes the cake, however, as the chattering classes mutter over a melody sung by an angelic choir, before a new narrator enters detailing the boredom and frustration of the champagne chic. Mainstream press people ask Pallett why he writes songs like this; the real question is, why doesn’t everyone else?

“Put the Blame on Me” – Handsome Ned (1989).
Ever since Hank Snow, Canada has always done country music well, but there has never been a male vocalist like Handsome Ned—and this song is by far his most powerful performance. Ned was a singer the equal of any of the Sun Records greats, and right from the opening lines, he is a positively arresting presence, all swagger and twang and dedication and ready to take on any burden, no matter how misdirected, to save a relationship. This is a song that would work at any tempo, but the clickety-clack of the hepped-up Tennessee Two-style rhythm section gives it that much more urgency and helped him cross over to the Queen St. punk crowd in the mid-’80s. This song is all the more memorable for its use in the opening credits of the 1989 film Roadkill, where it scores footage of the College St. Good Friday parade. The Biblical allegory is all there in the lyric, which is why when I used to have a weekly radio show, this was a staple of my annual “Dead Jesus Day” show.

“Basement Apartment” – Sarah Harmer (2000).
It starts with a drum machine, a Joni-ish giggle, some Lightfoot chords, some subtle Lanois ambiance, and then the unmistakable voice of Sarah Harmer channeling Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, detailing the ennui of a subterranean existence, isolated from the world and mired in self-defeat. Harmer is a vocalist who could make even the most mundane material resonate with warmth and empathy, which is in part why this downer of a song managed to become a breakthrough pop hit for her. But while the lyrics may detail boredom, they’re razor-sharp in their detail of life “below street level, barely alive,” “watching the things that go unsaid.” And, in the song’s final cruel blow, she shatters the illusion that a life led defying the soul-crushing mainstream existence doesn’t mean that you’re not locked into your own vicious cycles that are equally suffocating: “We always said that we were different/ but you know now that we weren’t.”

“Never Surrender” – Corey Hart (1984).
I can’t rationalize this, so I won’t. I love this song, always have. I was rooting for Hart over Adams in the diamond duel of 1985 (they both scrambled to become the first Canadian to sell one million copies domestically—Adams won.) I love the L.A. Law-style tenor saxophone. I can live with the huge ’80s power ballad drums. I’m not sure about the chicka-chicka pseudo-rock-steady guitar, which still kind of bugs me. This is fine cheese, right down to the after-school-special inspirational message, and it’s as tasty as it is sticky and greasy.

“Crabuckit” – K-OS (2004). (link)
How Canadian is this? A bass line cribbed from a British new wave song (The Cure’s “Lovecats”), a groove from American R&B (“Hit the Road Jack”), and lyrics referencing Yonge St. and The Tragically Hip. Then there’s the central image of the chorus: Canadian culture is all-too-often comprised of jealous backbiters ready to cut someone down for daring to think outside the box or get too big for their britches. The Canadian mainstream has long been resistant to homegrown hip-hop, and K-OS’s brand of genre-jumping doesn’t play well with the hardcore heads—they’re all a bunch of crabby crustaceans he’s more than happy to swagger on past as he sings “no time to get down coz I’m moving up.”

“Turn Me Loose” – Loverboy (1980).
Like others on this list, this is about the slow build: open with a droning synth and suspenseful hi-hat, introduce that definitive octave bass line, then the power chords—at first straightforward and simple, slowly get more noodly. The drums and vocals are announced simultaneously, with Mike Reno—one of the greatest male voices in Canadian classic rock, second only to Burton Cummings—updating Paul Anka to claim that “I’ve gotta do it my way/ or no way at all.” The chorus maintains the slow burn, with no sign of release and the addition of cooing female vocals. The only time the song breaks character is when a shrieking Reno promises to spread his wings and “FLYYYYY! My way!” As far as cock rock goes, “Turn Me Loose” is all about restraint, and it’s all the more impressive for it.

"Let Your Backbone Slide" – Maestro Fresh Wes (1989).
“THIS IS A THROWDOWN.” No shit—Canada’s first great hip-hop single is still the best. Never mind its novelty factor in the CanCon canon of the ’80s, because despite regional ripples by various artists before this, Maestro Fresh Wes single-handedly announced the birth of Canadian hip-hop with his breathless verbal avalanche, his deft vocabulary, a booming beat and that signature organ sample. Even better, Maestro sounded live and raw—this was no pop cop-out, and it still sounds “fresh” 20 years later. Like all hip-hop, Maestro also knew that his individual personality owed a large debt to his regional roots, which is why this and many of his other classic singles were unabashedly Canadian and Toronto-centric—which was refreshing from any charting act in 1989, hip-hop or not. I wonder what the rest of the world thought of his boasting about “bills that are brown.”
Tragic follow-up: Believe it or not, this song is not available on iTunes or any other digital provider I could find. All Maestro CDs, including his criminally underrated second album Black Tie Affair (which I bought on CD for $2 at Sam the Record Man’s closing sale), are out of print, except for a best-of that the Orange label put out in 2005. Other than that, the only place you’ll find this song is on the Oh! What a Feeling box set. Personally, I blame Allan Gregg. He might be a good TVO interviewer who knows a thing or two about politics, but don’t forget how he almost took down the entire Canadian music industry single-handedly with the Song Corporation fiasco, which enveloped Maestro's label, Attic. Can’t Farley Flex do something about this? Isn’t he now best buddies with Gregg’s former business partner, Jake Gold?

“Echo Beach” – Martha and the Muffins (1980).
Canadians seem to excel in escapist tales borne of ennui. Here, Martha Johnson sings like the clock just stuck 5 and she’s torn between the options of either crawling home for a TV dinner or daring to daydream about a solitary escape where “waves make the only sound.” The tenor saxophone attempts to seduce her, slowly raising her temperature one ascending note at a time, until by the end of the song she’s—well, actually, she hasn’t changed that much at all. Canucks—so blasé, eh?

“Snowbird” – Anne Murray (1970).
This song is sufficiently removed from cliché status by now that it’s much easier to appreciate, to analyze, and to embrace that weird sitar sound that kicks it off and sets it apart from any other Nashville pop hit of the time. I suspect “Snowbird” gets knocked because it encapsulates the milquetoast middle-of-the-road that so much of Canadian culture aspires to—and even more so because it came out amidst the socio-political tumult of the late ’60s and early ’70s, longing for “the land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow.” There are many familiar Canadian themes in Gene MacLellan’s lyric: seasonal change, dreams of escape, communing with nature, but the key here is a line that’s barely noticeable when sung by Murray’s bell-clear, innocuous voice: the narrator, who confesses to once being a free spirit, says that “now I feel such emptiness within/ for the thing I want most in life is the thing I can’t win.” It’s the kind of line that stops you in the middle of your grocery shopping, prompting an immediate re-evaluation of your own life’s thwarted plans and goals, and before you know it you’re sitting on a park bench communing with the commuter birds as well, waiting for a swirling, saccharine string section to embark on a choppy 16th-note ascent into the stratosphere and carry you away with it.

“Letter From an Occupant” – New Pornographers (1999).
The one-note opening guitar riff is deceptive. The next three-and-a-half minutes is a pop music baklava: dense, layered and overflowing with honey and butter. There’s the soaring theremin-like vocal chorus, propulsive drums, a guitar solo that sounds like it’s falling apart trying to maintain the song’s intensity, and the knockout vocals of Neko Case. “Where have all sensations gone?” she sings in the bridge, and compared to most of the deadly dull rock being made at the turn of the century—both indie and corporate—this arrived like an avalanche and became “the song that’s shaking me.” Not that any of the other lyrics make an ounce of sense; not that they have to.

“Rise Up” – Parachute Club (1984).
This song is such a cliché now that it’s easy to forget how good it actually is, even if it’s easy to dismiss it as an Up With People version of “A Change is Gonna Come.” It’s perhaps singular in being a socialist utopian pop song that isn’t the least bit preachy; if you’re not listening closely to Lorraine Segato’s soulful and engaging vocals, it may as well be about pizza crust; if you’re a card-carrying member of the NDP, it’s an affirmational fantasy. Everyone else can “talk about building the land of our dreams” any way they want. An early Daniel Lanois production, “Rise Up”—like the rest of the Parachute Club’s debut album—is notable for its heavy percussion and unique rhythms, making them one of the only Toronto acts to successfully incorporate the reggae and calypso of that city’s large Caribbean population.

“Eyes of a Stranger” – Payola$ (1982).
Canadian pop in the ’80s had its fair share of misused reggae influences and questionable British accents (both real and fake), but this song managed to tap into the menace of the darkest dub, dress it up in synth pop clothing and chorus pedals, and a tense, gripping vocal turn by Paul Hyde. But mostly what makes this song is drummer Chris Taylor; it’s possible this entire song would fall flat were it not for his slinky groove and those absolutely delicious drum fills, complete with timbales. It’s because of him that the outro is almost more satisfying than the chorus.

“Work Out Fine” – Joel Plaskett Emergency (2003).
Joel Plaskett is probably the best working songwriter in Canada today, but he doesn’t always pick his best songs as singles. This one, however, is three minutes of perfection: reggae bass line, Who-style power chords, call-and-response gang vocals, a shuffling hi-hat, organ stabs, and plenty of space for Plaskett’s befuddled optimist to set the scene. If it’s a pastiche that’s tailor-made for the High Fidelity crowd, so be it; Plaskett is a master technician who does this better than any of his peers and without a wink to be found. He’s also a kindred spirit for everyone east of Winnipeg who suffers from hometown bringdown when he sings, “All my friends, where did they go! To Montreal?! Toronto?!”

“Cherry Beach Express” – Pukka Orchestra (1984).
Oh-so-polite Canada doesn’t boast many pop songs about police brutality, so to say that “Cherry Beach Express” is the best one on the subject isn’t saying much. But it takes a certain skill to skewer Toronto’s 52 Division by name and to set a major-key melody to a chorus of: “My ribs are broken and my face is in a mess/ and I made all my statements under duress.” The production is too clean to be considered punk, but this sounds like a lost Joe Strummer classic.

“King of the Past” – Rheostatics (1992).
Part of what has mystified this band’s critics and skeptics is that the Rheostatics simply don’t sound like anyone else; there are very few obvious reference points, especially for a song that sounds like “King of the Past.” The fact that it’s in 6/8 is just the beginning. The sustain of Martin Tielli’s Steinberger guitar mirrors the opening violin line; drummer Dave Clark flatly refuses to play a waltz; the crescendos in the rhythmically stuttering chorus are restless and unsettling, offset somewhat by the simplicity of the stately three chords that consist of the chorus. The last 90 seconds are filled with swooping guitars and a string quartet, but this entire coda is basically a long and graceful drum solo for Clark, while Tielli’s guitar sounds like it’s struggling to break free and soar before the song erupts into a syncopated gallop. Maps are a recurring theme in Tim Vesely’s lyric; this song exists in its own cartographical sphere, in rivers rarely navigated by any of their peers.

“The Deca-Dance” – Rough Trade (1982).
Fifteen years after Pierre Trudeau told us that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, Carole Pope and Kevan Staples showed up Prince, Madonna and other supposedly shocking sex pioneers in pop music by singing about “transsexual erotica/ role reversal/ promiscuity” and inviting you to “take your guilty pleasure/ piss on your conditioning/ there’s a freedom we should comprehend.” This is one of Pope’s best vocal performances and most powerful choruses; she’s less campy, less directed, falling into the sway of a killer rhythm track worthy of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. And now, 25 years later, it’s still hard to think of a commercial pop singer with the power and persona of Carole Pope, who made transgressive sexuality a factor of everyday life on Canadian radio.

"Closer to the Heart" – Rush (1977).
Despite Neil Peart’s Ayn Rand fixation at the time he wrote this lyric, this song sounds shockingly socialist, or at least egalitarian. Gather round, all ye philosophers and ploughmen, blacksmiths and artists, it’s time to forge a new reality! To start with, a three-minute pop song by Rush (2:53, actually) means that these high-falutin’ prog rockers managed to abandon their side-long suites in favour of a more direct approach—something closer to the heart, if you will. It’s incredibly earnest, as a Canadian anthem is wont to be, but the only really silly thing about it is the reverbed vibraslap that punctuates the guitar solo. They would score other surefire singles—either “Tom Sawyer” and “Subdivisions” could just as easily been my pick for this list—but this is the Rush song that even Rush-haters can warm up to.

"Having an Average Weekend" – Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (1985).
This band loved the art of the 7-inch single—as anyone who bought their singles in the mid-’80 can attest. One they packaged a 45 in a Jiffy Pop container. Another time the sleeve folded out into a board game called Schlagers!. But most importantly, this instrumental trio understood the economy of the form, and how subtle variations on the theme make all the difference in the world when you don’t have a singer in front. The Shadowy Men were often tagged as a surf band, but two thirds of them hail from Calgary, and Brian Connelly’s twangy guitar is more evocative of the Alberta plains than California shores. This song’s status as the theme song for the Kids in the Hall means that these two-and-a-half minutes are the most beloved in the Shadowy discography, even by people who think they’ve never heard of them.

“Spadina Bus” – Shuffle Demons (1986).
This one has great personal resonance for me. As a somewhat sheltered suburban rock kid, this single opened my mind to jazz, funk and hip-hop. It helped considerably that it was performed by a bunch of wacky, dashiki-clad buskers who were singing about Toronto’s public transit system. This not only turned my ears in several new directions, but inspired me to start my first band (a polka band, but that’s another story) and embrace guerilla gigging. But aside from that context and the fact that it’s a novelty song, “Spadina Bus” holds up incredibly well for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is that every member of this band went on to become an accomplished jazz player. Stitch Winston’s drums display funk finesse, Jim Vivian’s bass line could fit in perfectly on A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory, the sax trio breakdown at the three-minute mark barrels along with a stuttering, syncopated glee, and the main riff sounds just as glorious as the “Hockey Night in Canada” theme they would cover a few years later.

“Have Not Been the Same” – Slow (1985).
Perhaps Canada’s finest punk rock single, it actually starts out like a soul song, with a guitar riff that could be a Stevie Wonder clavinet lick. Then come the slightly disco drums and the coo-ing female backing vocals. Then Tom Anselmi stumbles into the party like he just woke up in an alley in Vancouver’s east side, complaining about his hangover. As the song gains momentum and the drums struggle to keep up with the accelerating guitars, the fist-pumping chorus is an explosive release valve for the building tension of the verses. The final 60 seconds of this three-minute masterpiece finds the band tripping over themselves to get to the finish line, yet stopping on a dime like they knew what they were doing the whole time. Which they most certainly did.

“Born to be Wild” – Steppenwolf (1969).
The song that gave birth to the term “heavy metal” (“heavy metal thunder”) still induces chills, right from the opening chords, through to the organ stabs, to the unforgettable chorus. And how many hard rock or proto-metal songs feature an organ solo? No one has yet to get a Hammond organ and Leslie speaker to sound as monstrous as keyboardist Goldy McJohn did on this song (and “Magic Carpet Ride,” of course). It says a lot that this song hasn’t been diminished by hundreds of thousands of appropriations by Hollywood every time a character fires up a motorcycle (preferably a character experiencing a mid-life crisis, prompting “Born to be Mild” puns). If you’ve never pumped your fist to this song, you simply don’t believe in rock’n’roll.

"Start Telling the Truth" – Toronto (1982).
Somehow I inherited a tacky tourist t-shirt that reads: “Canadian girls kick ass,” which I wear with only somewhat ironic pride. Growing up in the ’80s, it’s hard to argue with a long line of powerhouse female rockers: the Headpins’ Darby Mills, Rough Trade’s Carole Pope, Lee Aaron, and Toronto’s Holly Woods. Did women like this even exist in the U.S. or the U.K.? I mean, other than Heart—who launched their career in Vancouver, and won a Juno for their first album. But to the case at hand: “Start Telling the Truth” is neither power ballad nor rocker, but a mid-tempo pop song anchored by a one-note bass line in the chorus, a verse that drops out consistently for a “Be My Baby” beat, and a stirring performance from Woods. There is a stately grace to the space this song allows: long, sparse guitar chords; a melodic guitar solo devoid of flash; and the way that bass line maintains a drone, giving the song a sumptuous, slow simmering feel. In a genre where most women come across as hosebags, these hosers left us with this seriously sexy single.

"Fireworks" – The Tragically Hip (1999).
Not an obvious choice for one of Canada’s best-loved bands, who have a dozen singles that many die-hard fans would place before this one. But in the framework of a deceptively simple three-chord garage rocker, Gord Downie creates a character who evolves from a confused adolescent concerned only about hockey into an only-somewhat-more worldly adult who recognizes that fireworks, though thrilling, are little more than “temporary towers,” and that marriage can be “a fake Cold War” that must be negotiated. He sings about shaking off expectations, both of your own and that of the whole goddam country, and finds it “amazing what you can accomplish/ when you don’t let the nation get in your way.” He does this all fantastically in four minutes flat, without giving the guitarists a chance to solo, though leaving ample room for backing vocals and manic drum fills.

And really, what better way to close Canada Day than with “Fireworks”?

Monday, June 29, 2009

NXNE 2009

NXNE was held a week later this year, and June being the hectic month it is, it meant that my time out on the street was limited, so there's not too much to report. Other than the admirable line-up of free shows at Yonge-Dundas Square, there wasn't much to distinguish this NXNE from any other: it's solid, dependable, necessary, but at the end of the day it's a club crawl and a crapshoot. I wasn't as present mentally or physically as I usually am, so I'll offer these humble observations:

Black Lips

This was the buzz gig of the opening night festivities, a free outdoor show by the upstart Texas garage band at Yonge-Dundas Square. Entering the square, most of the local media and industry types were spotted easily and instantly; while locking up my bike, I could hear the singer of a high profile and still somewhat new local band lamenting his press coverage and complaining about how “reviewers should be reviewed.” Clearly, this was the place to be and be seen. The Black Lips were introduced by an obnoxious MC from the show’s sponsor, who made the mistake of quipping, “Did it just get a lot more hipster in here?” Judging by the fashion choices surrounding me, it certainly had. Rubbed the wrong way by this point, it was a challenge to lend the Black Lips my open ears. It didn’t help that they sounded like a tired old garage band devoid of any personality, whose ass could easily be kicked by any one of 20 similar bands playing somewhere else in the city at that exact moment. No wonder they used to play their guitars with their genitalia: would we be listening otherwise?

Change of Heart

For a certain generation of Toronto music lovers, this was the main attraction of NXNE, the first performance in well over a decade by prog-punk powerhouse Change of Heart. “I’m scared shitless,” confessed bandleader Ian Blurton, before launching into a set that betrayed not a speck of rust. So flawless was their reunited chemistry that, halfway through the set, Blurton shifted his tone and quipped, “Okay, I’m bored.”

No one in the audience shared that sentiment, however, as the set list pulled from every stage of their career, dating right back to “Directions for Going” from the 1986 album 50 Ft. Up. And it wasn’t just a younger generation of fans that was relishing hearing the oldies for the first time; during the band's lifespan, Ian Blurton rarely liked to play anything from an album much older than the one he was touring at the time.

As the set progressed, Blurton seemed increasingly befuddled at the whole spectacle: Was this actually a big deal? Should he have expected it to be more of a big deal? For all the accolades and the legendary status they have among fellow musicians, is a sold-out Horseshoe show in the middle of a festival worth reuniting for?

For fans, the answer was obvious. I considered myself a big fan who at least can remember all the jagged stops and starts of the songs, but there were people here who were singing every word, and one man was so excited he was simply vibrating on the dance floor. But exhibitions of ecstasy were rare; this was a polite and reverential Canadian crowd. Or—Torontonian. Blurton expressed bemused dissatisfaction with the crowd response: "Wow, it sure sounds like we're in Toronto. Can we try for Oshawa, at least? Come on, people, how about a little Peterborough?!"

The encore was the 90-second song "Yeah, Right"—a perfectly punk move that suggested Blurton and company weren't ready to succumb to any delusions of a victory lap or an anthropological excavation. A gig is a gig is a gig. This was a great one: nothing more, no less. And if it's the last time anyone hears from Change of Heart, then they went out with class.

Now, at the very least, can someone re-master Smile?

Arrington de Dionysio

Part of my NXNE was spent trying to see bands that didn’t consist of four guys with two guitars, bass and drums—often in vain. Which is why it was so refreshing to start off Friday night after work with a meditative set by the bandleader of Old Time Relijun, accompanied on bass clarinet, vocals sung into a snare drum, or a jaw harp. It was the last thing you’d expect to find in the bustle of an industry music fest, and all the more valuable because of it. De Dionysio projects his feral and sexual drawings behind him while he performs, reinforcing the primal and raw sounds he conjures from within himself, no matter the instrumentation.

Experimental Dental School

Other than Battles’ Tyondai Braxton, looped guitars are rarely used in frenetic rock settings; normally they’re the domain of plaintive solo performers looking to replicate band accompaniment. Experimental Dental School is a duo that makes enough of an intricate and lovely racket without the loops, but once the pedal is turned on everything gets both giddy and dizzy. Vocals are sweet but sparse; songs are fractured and constantly in a state of renewal and rebuilding. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, there are more than a few shades of Sleater-Kinney’s interlocking guitars and Janet Weiss’s balance of rock’n’roll drive and careful composition on the drum kit. Experimental Dental School live up to the surprising elements of their name, not the excruciating ones.

Red Mass

Just because you invite all your friends on stage to hammer out sluggish one-chord jams doesn’t mean you’re able to reach a state of transcendence. Or if you are, it certainly doesn’t translate to the somewhat stunned audience who had been led to believe that this seven-piece Montreal ensemble was going to be some kind of mindblowing psychedelic metal show that you couldn’t afford to miss—and with three midnight gigs in a row, clearly someone in charge thought this would be the shit. If you weren’t there, you didn’t miss a thing.

So So Glows

This young Brooklyn band had three shows scheduled on the opening night of the festival, including two at different clubs back to back. Their 9 p.m. show proved that they had more than enough energy for the task, plowing through a powerhouse set of material that lay somewhere between the first albums by The Clash and Franz Ferdinand. The rhythm section in particular set the So So Glows apart from other pop punk pretenders; even more impressive, the bassist does double duty as pogo-ing lead singer. Despite the fact that the venue was projecting the highly distracting psychedelic kids classic film Pufnstuf on screens behind the bar, So So Glows were unavoidably powerful and promising.

These Are Powers

I should never judge a band on how they look. But when your singer is a lithe woman in a striped unitard, your bassist looks like Flea’s cousin who fled his job as a gas pump jockey for a Williamsburg loft, and your percussionist is perched over various drums decorated in Christmas lights—and on top of all that you sound like a cross between Alta Moda and Bolero Lava (or insert any other new wave fusion band that never escaped the hipster strip that spawned it in the mid-80s)—it’s hard not to be harsh. The singer has personality and talent to spare—if she didn’t, she probably wouldn’t even attempt to get into the unitard—and it would be fascinating to see her fronting just about any other band but this one.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Apostle of Hustle

I used to think that the name Apostle of Hustle referred to a disco dance. Which was odd because Andrew Whiteman’s music always seemed too busy and complex to surrender to simple grooves. (That’s changed considerably lately.) I later realized that it referred more to Whiteman’s tireless work ethic, especially when he was down on his luck in the mid-’90s and scampering for any gig he could get.

He doesn’t have to do that anymore. As one of the core members of Broken Social Scene ever since they expanded into a full band—that’s Whiteman who is in clear focus on the cover of 2002’s classic You Forgot It In People—he has a high-profile gig that has not only kept him gainfully employed, but given the Apostle of Hustle a much broader international profile than it would enjoy otherwise.

That’s not because it’s not worthy, but because Whiteman had trouble getting arrested on College St. at the turn of the decade; though his talents and charms are plenty, his is a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers and snap judgments.

Indeed, even though I’ve known Andrew Whiteman peripherally for over 15 years, it took me a good year of listening to Apostle of Hustle’s 2004 album Folkloric Feel before its brilliance became apparent to me. I knew enough not to dismiss it right away—it was obvious something special was going on—but such is its density that its many mysteries took a good 12 months to unravel slowly. Even today, I hear new things on that album.

I first met Whiteman backstage in London, Ontario (at the now-recently razed Embassy Hotel) when he was still in the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, the R&B/soul band he joined in high school. Somehow we got on to the topic of the Rheostatics and geeked out about the just-released Whale Music album. After he left the Bourbons, his band Gunwhalebob—featuring future Apostle of Hustle bassist Julian Brown—shared many bills with my own band at the time. While I always had massive respect for his talent as a guitarist, it was obvious that he was still searching for his own voice as a songwriter. With Apostle of Hustle, Whiteman has not only found it, but he’s created something unique. One can hear Latin rhythms, dub reggae effects, Krautrock, Eno-esque production, prog rock and pop songs all coexisting in single songs. More importantly, it works.

And on Apostle of Hustle’s third album, it works better than ever. It’s their leanest, meanest album, at once their most accessible and their most experimental. And with an increased focus on one-chord grooves, you can even hustle to it.

This conversation took place for this month’s cover story in Exclaim! magazine. I recommend you read that first if you’re new to Whiteman’s world. Here, over breakfast on his way to a Broken Social Scene practice, the ever-animated, ever-opinionated Whiteman waxes enthusiastic on his myriad influences, why he thinks he's a lazy man, and he wasn't interested in either last year's Bourbon Tabernacle Choir reunion nor the recently released oral history book of Broken Social Scene.

Andrew Whiteman
May 6, 2009
Locale: the Lakeview Lunch, Toronto

Of the many voices that appear in the found sound collages throughout the album, my favourite is the voice of William S. Burroughs reciting the phrase: “We are immeasurably old and ravenously young.” Where is that from? Is that a theme for this album?

I stole it for a reason, I guess. I believe it’s from The Place of Dead Roads. It’s from that [Western Lands] trilogy. I stole almost all my stuff from a site called Ubuweb. It’s run by a guy named Kenny Goldsmith. His slogan is: “all avant-garde all the time.” It’s a fantastic site of modern work: film, spoken world, concrete poetry, performance art. I find that’s what I listen to on my iPod all the time anyway: poetry, criticism, ideas. It’s an amazing resource. That was instrumental when I started making this record. Originally I had a collage for each song, and they were longer. I chopped those things down, and I got into sample clearance problems. I really want to leak all of the collages sewed together. It would be an intense listen.

Would this be the Apostle of Hustle mixtape?

When the album was beginning, we assumed that we wouldn’t even make any copies, that it would be quick and dirty and online. As such, we thought it would be so under the radar that we’d use quotes from Sopranos and Deadwood. We thought: no one will care or find out or buy this record anyway, they’ll take it for free online.

You were going to go totally Negativland.

That’s exactly how it started. Sometime around September I played it for my A&R guy, Kevin [Drew], and he liked it a lot more than I thought he’d like it. I had perhaps a juvenile distaste for the work it takes to promote the album and get it done right for a proper release. I just wanted to make music and not deal with all that stuff—which is important to deal with.

Is that part of the reason it’s so short?

No. There were a few more songs that could have gone on. It’s a Latin Playboys thing. I remember getting that album and getting to the end and thinking, “Oooh, it’s only 36 minutes, those fuckers!”

I enjoy all three of your albums for different reasons, but this one seems like the longest journey—and yet it’s the shortest. And I mean longest journey in a good way, in a satisfying way. It doesn’t feel like half an hour. It’s more bang for your buck. Yet this is a thin lyric sheet. Is this less lyrically dense than other Apostle albums?

Maybe. I got an ultimatum from my band when we finished this: “Next time we record, you have to have all the lyrics written before we go into the studio.” The instrumental, “Eats Darkness,” had a huge lyric to it, which was jettisoned in the end because it was too much. It was an experiment on a book called War Music, which is a retelling of a new translation of The Odyssey, by this British guy Christopher Logue. If you think you never liked that, this will take you right in to ancient Greek stuff. I did an experiment where I took the name of someone I know and wrote it vertically, and then based on the melodic count, I had to make sure each line started with the letter from that person’s name. Then I methodically went through the book page by page until I found a word that started with that letter and followed the melodic structure.

You mean the cadence?

Yeah, the number of syllables. This was a literary experimental thing going on underneath the music.

What attracted you to the line: “Human beings have been commissioned to make war music, music that people will be not only willing, but anxious to die to.”

It was another thing from Ubuweb that I’ve been listening to. Stan Brakhage did a series of one-hour radio shows in 1980 when he was teaching at the University of Denver, called the Test of Time. He puts together an amazing program. He’s a huge poetry fan, and a fan of classical music and ancient music. That’s him speaking.

What would you characterize as modern war music?

Music from northern Mali that we’ve come to know through Tinariwen and all that stuff. That’s one version of it. Another would be The Clipse. A lot of the inspiration for the segues were hip-hop mixtapes I used to get on the streets. But when I sat down to do them, it exploded into this whole other thing I really enjoyed doing.
You took my question in a positive context of believing in something so much that you’re willing to die for it. I was thinking more about rallying people to a militaristic cause. What music would you be anxious to die for?

How about World of Echo by Arthur Russell? No, I guess that would be something to die to, not die for.

Would that be the “death you get for the life you lead”? [a line from the song “Perfect Fit”]

(laughs) Yeah, right. If you’re Mother Theresa, that’s the death you get.

Where is that line from?

It’s from the writer David Antin. He improvises and speaks on some topic and goes and goes, and later he listens to his cadence and types up his poetry. He’s trained as an art critic and professor.

What resonated with you about that line?

When I was a kid I would read about Crazy Horse. Before you have to go into battle, you have to make peace with your personal spirits and say, “It’s a good day to die. I’ll be happy if I go out there and die today.” That song is my version of that.

You don’t need a battle to feel that way, though. I wake up every morning grateful for the people around me, and every time you say goodbye to someone and you don’t know when you’ll see them ago, you want to know that you’ve made your amends and all is well. If today is the day that the piano falls, I want to know that I’ve made peace with everyone and myself.

It’s a technique for living harder, more fully, you know that death is on your shoulder.

And living honestly, too.


Someone told me that you once said that when you were in the Bourbons, you went to someone’s 30th birthday party at Lee’s Palace—and vowed not to be still hanging around Lee’s Palace when you turned 30.

It was the Hopping Penguins, one of those guys’ 30th birthday. I did coke for the first time that night, which is probably where that conversation came from. I was probably 23. I said if I’m celebrating my 30th birthday at Lee’s Palace, I’m going to be fucking sick. Are you asking me to account for such youthful declarations?

How old are you now?


How did you spend your 40th?

At SXSW. It was at San Jose Hotel. We did a gig there and the woman who runs it was so nice to us, so great. Time is a giant fucking bullwhip, man. It’s my enemy! But then it’s not, at the same time.

You may still be playing Lee’s Palace at age 42, but there’s been nothing about your career that’s been a rut.

That’s you saying that.

It’s like my favourite Carolyn Mark line: “Is it a groove or is it a rut?” There have been lots of left turns, the three Apostle records all sound different to me, this new one opens new doors. Do you feel like you’re in a rut?

No, no. I do feel like I’m lazy, like I haven’t done enough. I don’t know how much I believe in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, but when you walk around with Rimbaud on your shoulder…

Just tell him to shut up!

Exactly: “Stuff a sock in it, you junkie.” You’re comparing yourself to your peers or your people, your immediate peers or your dead peers. I’m very restless. I wish I was a graduate student under Marjorie Perloff at USC in California. I did a cabaret in September at [Toronto theatre company] Soulpepper, and I wish I could jump into that. I’ve got too much to do and I have to make money somehow. I could do better. I wish getting high and watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force wasn’t so funny. Know what I mean? You gotta take a break! “All means to attract and distract,” said the Disposable Heroes. That band was a big wake-up for me. You remember them?

Of course. Michael Franti. I saw them. Didn’t the Bourbons share management with them?

A little bit for a while. Back when they were performance-y. It was Michael Franti, Charlie Hunter, and that…

Table saw guy.


Rollo? Rono?

You remember his name?

First time I saw them was opening for Billy Bragg.

At the Concert Hall, exactly.

What about them woke you up?

Recognizing that someone is saying some shit in a really, really good way. Certain cultural skewering is always attractive, whether it’s “all means to attract and distract” or I Am the Slime by Zappa. I don’t get tired of that one.

In terms of being restless, I’m curious whether BSS is the biggest distraction in your life, or does it help you focus?

It’s not a distraction, that’s for sure.

Today it sounds like one.

Well, things have changed—massively. Certainly at the beginning, it was no distraction at all. Total joy. Inspired. Jo-Ann [Goldsmith] and Kevin [Drew]’s house was very much a hub. That was absolutely amazing. I don’t know if it somehow focused me, but I wouldn’t have been able to put out my record without Arts and Crafts. Even now (laughs), I feel like I got in on the ground floor and they can’t kick me out! I may be C list, but I’m in! Whew.

I feel like you came into that band with the most conventional background to a degree…

No kidding, unless you call grunge conventional, in which case it would be [Brendan] Canning.

And yet I find your records are both the most melodic and the most experimental.

Yeah. So do I. I loved doing that Tagaq thing and having that little release. I don’t like being pigeonholed into quirky pop music or whatever. My trajectory is somewhat more along the Burroughs and Tom Waits kind of thing. I think it’s going to get a little more outside the older I get. The more that a body of work begins to build. I think Tom Waits, before he moved to New York, he had five records or whatever at that point, and they were all of a certain thing. He probably sat down and said, “This feels good, I have this body of work, and now I’m going to take 14 hits of this and move to New York and never come back, artistically.” It’s a lack of time and resources that prevents Apostle of Hustle from being my #1 creative launch pad. But I love Social Scene so much, and it’s my #1 priority.

Was 2007 the first time Apostle of Hustle did a full tour?

It took us four months to figure out all the parts and how to cover them, and for me to relax a bit and not have Julian having 14 parts to do. After four months, we went to SXSW, did an Andrew Bird tour, and then realized that it’s a vibe, it’s the holy trinity. It’s not about the parts, it’s about what happens between me, Julian and Dean. That was great to figure that out. If I look at bands, the only ones who are climbing is because it’s constant work. And when Apostle can’t do that constant work, it gives us this false question: “Gee, how come we’re not….” Well, because you stop and then you have to start again.

It’s a labour of love right now, and that’s all it can be. I can’t afford to have a lighting guy so that we start in total darkness and by the end we’re bathed in beaming light everywhere—which is what I want, I want to do stage-y shit like that. But for these shows, one thing we can do is at least we can learn every song we’ve ever recorded. That’s fun. We have 31 songs that we can play. Those guys won’t get bored and we can mix it up. I’m excited about that. Songs that used to be big rock anthems are now 12/8 maraca-driven Peruvian indie rock tunes. We’re having a looser approach again.

I was thinking about an interview you and I did around 1998 for Que Vida [for Id magazine], and my stance on performing was that I wanted to do it but retreated at the same time; I felt exposed in an energy-sapping way. It’s like Barry White said, ‘The ‘’80s were a difficult time for Barry.’

So the late ’90s were to you what the ’80s were to Barry White?

Exactly. Lost the plot.

How do you feel about that time now? I made a little list of your various projects: Fear of Zen. The Strap. Gunwhalebob. Walt Whitman. Que Vida.

I also tried to get a publishing deal in there, with EMI. Me and [ex-Bourbon singer] Dave [Wall] did that on the strength of a few Big Sugar hits.


Never got that, no. I came up with a couple of great boy band songs I could still use, though.

How do you look at that period of your life now?

I say, fuck it. I wasn’t glued enough to my four-track. I did so much work on my four-track and I should have stayed there. I shouldn’t have ventured out. Alex Lukachevsky [Deep Dark United] and I do this to each other all the time. I think I should have done things like Alex, just put out cassettes for a while. I wanted someone to take care of that stuff for me. So I connected myself with people that I thought would do that, and gave up too much control that way and you get a little lost.

That’s very much a ’90s thing, when young bands still thought it was possible to make it in the music industry, such as it was. And now no one has those illusions. But at the same time, you’re on Arts and Crafts now and you play in a band with one of the guys who owns the label.

It’s weird. Things work out somehow. Don’t know how, but they do. I got lucky. Lots of people get lucky finds, and you got to be smart enough to know they’re a lucky find or they’re not that lucky. My whole attitude towards performing now is a lot different. It’s a lot healthier than when you and I had that interview.

How would you describe it then?

It was just guarded. I didn’t know how to unlock.

Was it the music you were playing?

Maybe a bit. I ceded control voluntarily. I gave it to other people.

In the band?

Exactly. In the idea that if I’m attached to these guys, then things will go well. But that’s not the case.

That was around the time that Que Vida was helping to launch a new label called Sound and Light, which put out the first New Deal album. I remember you telling me about what sounded like a very Arts and Crafts model at the time, at least in terms of a pool of people that cross-pollinate. What was that about? Was that more in name only until New Deal took off?

It was. It might have been an idea in [New Deal bassist] Dan Kurtz’s head, a vision. That guy is not short of vision. He has a big palette. That guy is an insatiable worker. He could see that the New Deal was going to kick some ass for a few years, and he went with it. I did see the New Deal back up Feist for a few gigs very early on, which I thought was great. It was only two or three shows at the We’ave on Dundas St.

But maybe we’re not talking about the future enough.

Back when the New Deal was starting, you were talking about getting into repetitive, dance-y, I don’t want to use the word trance…

No, no, use trance, use trance.

But I think of really cheesy…

(interjects) I don’t. I did an interview for Folkloric Feel, and the woman asked me where we were going, and I said that slowly Apostle of Hustle is transforming into a one-chord band.

Polar opposite of Gunwhalebob.

That’s for sure.

Too many chords!

So many chords. We’re closer to moving to one chord now. “Soul Unwind” and “Perfect Fit” are like that. Some of the songs we did for the cabaret were like that. We were discussing strategies for when everyone gets super busy, like when Social Scene’s record comes out. We know the next two or three records we’re going to put out in the next few years. One of them is definitely a trance record.

Define a trance record for me.

I could be talking about North African music or Jamaican dancehall. It’s ecstatic states. It’s also about sorcery.

How so?

I think about some of those Sonic Youth jams that are very much about how this reality is surrounded by a net, it’s about looking at the holes in the net and the pores of the fabric and how the music dissolves those momentarily so that you have contact with the non-empirical reality surrounding us. Music is definitely a form of sorcery, and that’s what I want to do.

Do you feel you get close to that?

Sometimes, yeah. Fuck yeah. It’s a powerful feeling.

How do Julian and Dean help you achieve that?

It’s impossible to predict what they’re going to do, especially Julian—I have no fucking clue. Every sorcerer needs a monkey familiar!

Tell me about Julian Brown. Was Gunwhalebob the first thing you did together?

I’ve known him that long. I bailed on the Bourbons in what, 93? [Rheostatic] Dave Clark hooked me up with him and [drummer] Andrew Henry.

I know Julian took time off from music and life for a while. Was he important to what your vision of what Apostle of Hustle would be? Did you call him up specifically for that?

I did, actually. I don’t know why. Could be unfinished business. When I was in Havana, I knew it had to be Julian. I don’t know what drew me back to him. Somehow I knew that he would be up for the task. I didn’t know what the task would be.

Speaking of too many chords, he’s the only guy I knew who could, on a dime, figure out all the chords to “Chega de Saudade” by Jobim. He could transpose it into any key in five seconds. He has limitless potential, musically. It’s terrifying. If I’m frustrating because I’m restless and have so many ideas, he’s frustrating because he’s good at so many instruments. If he’s the monkey familiar who is the chaos part of the equation, he’s also the mule. He will not budge, when things are telling him something’s wrong.

Was Dean Stone in and out at the beginning?

No, he’s been there since day one. There was one tour of Europe he couldn’t do, so we got [Justin] Peroff. Dean’s new thing is that maracas are the new cowbell. He was noodling on YouTube and found some maraca technique from Venezuela called joropo, cowboy music from the dry plains of Venezuela and Columbia. The way these guys play is unreal, so Dean has decided this is a huge thing.

Do you ever have band practices where you don’t play music, just sit around and play records?

A little bit. We were supposed to be rehearsing, because it’s really hard to get together, and we’re taking our approach from listening to records. I didn’t know very early ECM Records, so these guys were playing me Old and New Dreams: Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Eddie Blackwell. Early 70s. That was our jam session. This is who we are, because we’re prevented from being a band that plays all the time. We are itinerant that way. They are willing to indulge me.

We just did a recording session with a master voodoo percussionist from Haiti, though a connection with a guy in Hamilton. Jean-Baptiste Bonga. That record will come out next year. That was mind-changing for us, playing with him. We got to play vodun songs and vodun music. He would start and we would try to follow him. We hung out for four days doing that. That was a month ago.

Were you versed in what he did before?

Oh, no. My knowledge of Haitian music is limited to compas music. Some of the greatest guitar playing I’ve heard is from a a band called Les Gypsies de Baton. Here’s this little titan, Bonga. He lives in Jersey and Port-au-Prince.

So that’s one of the upcoming three records.


What are the other two?

I can’t reveal those details. But let’s just say I’m comfortable in the conceptual realm.

So it will be a trilogy.

In the musical sense.

I love the line here: “We cultivate resistant hearts.” How did that come to you?

I can’t always be bleak.

It’s easy to do.

That song is a slice of hope. It’s a counter to the song “Xerxes,” where the message is that we’re fucked. Although, if you go back to Thermopylae, we are not fucked.


Because at Thermopylae, a handful of Greeks held off an army of 400,000 Persians through skill, luck and positioning. We, the underdog, did win at that juncture. The song “Xerxes” says that we’re not going to win, because Geronimo didn’t win, and he did the same thing. [The song] "How Do You Defeat a More Powerful Enemy” is saying maybe we can win. If you follow these instructions.

You can eat darkness.

Marc Ribot has a great bit where he talks about loudness and rock guitar. When volume started to creep up, it was the shamanic function of taking the pain away: inoculation. You must be injected with a piece of the darkness to have dealings with the darkness, build up a resistance. Only through the ingestion of darkness and transforming it chemically inside of you, and then you shit sunlight.

There are very few lyrics on the record. Is this similar to your one-chord goal?

I sat in on a class in Concordia this winter, and we did a fair amount of Ezra Pound. One of his things is to bring it down, reduce it, reduce it.

My high school English teacher always told us that brevity is the sole of wit.

Unless you’re telling a Borscht Belt joke.

Post-mortem, how did the Bourbon reunion feel for you? [The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir was asked to reunite for a one-off show at the 2008 Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario.]]

I’m anti-nostalgia. I’m too interested in right now. I’m ecstatic about what’s happening right now.

Guess what? Bourbons, I was like, no, not interested. No, no, no. Then some people were like, ‘Get off your high horse and stop being such an asshole. Just do something for the fans. We don’t have to reunite, we just want another party.’ So yeah, okay, if I don’t have any other plans, if I’m not away, okay. So then I get an email: “Do you mind if there’s a film crew around when we do this?” I put my two cents in. “Yes, I do.” Of course that’s ignored, because that’s the pattern from the old.

I’m great friends with Kate [Fenner]; I see her every time I’m in New York. I’m great friends with Chris Brown, I stay with him every time I’m in Kingston. There’s no enmity there. Musically? Whatever, man. That was then this is now. It’s not exciting or thrilling. I’m not at the edge of my seat. There’s no trance, no sorcery, no nothing.

Is it historical re-enactment?

Yeah! And you know what man? Let’s be honest: it was a drag. So that’s how I feel about it. I’m just not into nostalgia.

[unprompted] You want to know what I think of the Broken Social Scene book? It’s garbage. It’s not garbage; [author] Stuart Berman isn’t garbage. I love that guy’s music writing. And he’s a friend of mine and I trust that what he does is not going to suck. And it probably doesn’t suck. But in principle? Sure, I mean, if I was a 14-year-old fan whose older brother got me into Broken Social Scene I’m sure I’d find it really interesting. Maybe his angle is also interesting, about how community music can happen. That’s all on the positive side, and I’m being a stick in the mud. But fuck that—nostalgia is for the old age home. What about right now? Maybe it’s just my insider opinion.

Maybe it’s because it’s about you and something you’re involved in. But you, as a voracious reader and someone who’s interested in other music, if you read a book about someone else’s career is that also somehow false nostalgia?

It verges on mawkish celebrity-ness. I can’t stand that. I’m not interested in that. I’ve attempted for the entire life of my goddaughter to offer alternatives to that for her—not successfully, I might add. We live in an increasingly celebritized milieu. This could all be just another way of saying that it just fucking rubs me the wrong way and I think it’s tacky. It’s cheap and tacky.

Is it not a timepiece? And what’s wrong with that?

Okay, a timepiece. Let’s talk about time. Is ten years time, really? Is that a timepiece? Come on. Nostalgic exhumation? The corpse doesn’t have a chance to dissolve into the soil anymore. It’s too close.

Whenever someone under the age of 80 gets a lifetime achievement award, their first response seems to be: what? It’s over? Are you going to roll me into the grave now? I heard the choreographer Peggy Baker on the radio yesterday, talking about receiving some such honour, and she explained how resistant she was to the concept—especially as a dancer, when she’s spent much of her career proving that dancers don’t have to retire at the age of 19 or whatever.

That’s amazing. Peggy Baker is amazing. Give her some other award! You want to fete her? Give her money, I’m sure she’d be happy with that.

But that’s the semantics of the phrase “lifetime achievement award.” You’re merely resistant to the idea of a book at this stage in the band’s career.

Yeah! I’m resistant to it. It’s mawkish and I’m not into it.

The conception of BSS initially was to play new songs all the time, not to play the album. And then that morphed into a machine that had to meet certain expectations of fans coming out to see it. And then flipping through Berman’s book yesterday, there are quotes from people—including yourself, if I’m not mistaken—saying how they could see this band still doing this in 30 years, largely because the structure is so fluid and everybody is old friends. But will you be playing the hits from 2003 then? This is a band that, from the beginning, didn’t even want to nostalgize the album they had just put out. There was meant to be forward motion.

Kevin was ranting the other day about how we’ve given up the mystery. And it’s true.

Because of the book?

Well, that was one thing, but he was ranting at [Brendan] Canning for doing eTalk Daily and all this shit. And I agree, I think it’s bullshit. At the same time, that’s our job. And if we didn’t have that job, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of this.

You said you just learned 31 songs for this tour. Are people nostalgic for Folkloric Feel? What about those old songs?

I was thinking about the Dead, or Dylan. I haven’t been to a Dylan show in a long time, but I’m assuming he plays a wide range of his stuff. I hope he does songs from Time Out of Mind and from Blonde on Blonde and from Blood on the Tracks. I’m assuming that’s what it’s about. One thing I took from the Dead was that they’re not the best at what they do—they’re the only ones at what they do.

I was thinking about Apostle; I want to be master of this music. Or like Gonzales, who wanted to be the supervillain, the master of music, and that’s why he can afford to have this excellent prankster, shit-disturbing character who can run for the mayor of the Berlin underground. And why? Because when he sits at the piano, he can kill you. And he will kill you, because he’s a master, a genius of music.

For Apostle specifically, that’s our strength. We have five releases—three albums, two EPs—and the people that are our fans are introverted, music fans who are on the periphery. These are not centre-gathered people. They are outside the herd for whatever reason, for better or worse. I’ve met them. So for us to become masters of our music, that’s the least I can do for myself and for them. That’s the impetus for learning every song we’ve ever recorded. Even if I can’t do anything else successfully, I want to be master of my fucking realm. When you come to the Apostle show, you’ll hear any song you want and we can twist it four different ways.

These internalized music nerds who come to your show—do they dance?

In Montreal they do! It’s a heterogenous bunch. For this tour we solicited a bunch of young bands to see who wanted to open for us, instead of choosing one act or having a booking agent do it. It’s been amazing for me to listen to all these MySpace sites and find out what people are doing.

So you see how you may be directly inspiring some people, if there fans enough of your music?

No I can’t! (laughs) Not for a lot of them, for sure. Listening to a lot of them, I think, really? We are music for introverted people, so I don’t know what they get out of it or read into it. I have no fucking clue. I don’t know anyone else who sounds like our band; I wish I did. It’s always a horrible conversation when someone says, ‘Who does your band sound like?’ or ‘Who do you want to go on the road with?’ No one does what we do—which sounds high and mighty, but when you get down to it, nobody really does do this.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

May reviews 09

Reviews from my weekly column in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information (Strut)

Mulatu Astatke is considered the godfather of Ethiopian jazz, with a history that includes a Western musical education—he was the first African student at the Berklee College of Music—and playing with Duke Ellington in the ’70s. Here, he teams up with young British group the Heliocentrics, whose brand of psychedelic and cinematic jazz mixes perfectly with Astatke’s compositions; their last high-profile gig was as DJ Shadow’s backing band, and their versatility was audible on their debut album, 2007’s Out There. Ethiopiques fans will find much to love here, although this doesn’t aim to recreate Astatke’s vintage recordings and it’s not a one-way cultural exchange; this sounds as much like the Heliocentrics as it does the 66-year-old jazzman, and he’s happy to hop on board whatever futuristic, cosmic journey they want to take him on. Considering that he built his career on cross-cultural hybrids, this simply sounds like Astatke taking the logical next step. Unlike most long-lost stars with a new lease on life through vintage reissues, he’s definitely not a museum act. (K-W Record, May 21)

Booker T. – Potato Hole (Anti)

Sometimes an old friend will re-appear in your life, a friend with whom you once shared plenty of good times, who imparted great wisdom along the way. He shows up at your door looking great, just as nimble as he was in his prime. And while it’s great to see him again, you quickly realize that he has nothing to say; conversation evaporates almost instantly.

So it is with Booker T. Jones, the legendary keyboardist who led the MGs and was part of the house band at soul music powerhouse Stax Records. After years as part of one of Neil Young’s rotating backing bands, he surfaces here with Southern rock group the Drive-by Truckers—with Young dropping by as well—for his first solo album in 31 years. Soul fans might be shocked to hear him with such a meat-and-potatoes rock band behind him—incidentally, the same one who failed to ignite any sparks with soul singer Bettye Lavette on one of her recent comeback albums—but more importantly, they’re likely to be disappointed by just how little happens over the course of these 10 tracks, regardless of genre.

There’s nothing terrible here—Booker T. is far too tasteful to make any serious missteps, although covering Outkast’s “Hey Ya” goes nowhere fast. Instead, Potato Hole amounts to little more than a shrug. Nice to see you old friend—now what were we talking about again? (K-W Record, May 7)

Jim Bryson – Live at the First Baptist Church (Kelp)

Everybody, including his new employers the Tragically Hip, loves Jim Bryson. Yet no one seems to love his records. Fans seem to have quibbles with every one of his three studio albums: they’re overproduced; they’re underproduced; they don’t sound like his live shows. None of those concerns could be raised with this live album, which of course not only features Bryson’s finest songs, but boasts an all-star Ottawa band that can be sweet when they want to be, with keyboard textures and rich backing vocals, or as raucous and raw as Bryson’s punk rock roots. Bryson, who is best known as a sideman for Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans, and now the Hip, shines as a singer and storyteller in ways that—for whatever reason—he never has on his studio albums. And while there are occasional moments heard here that could have easily been edited out and left in the moment, they don’t diminish the impact of hearing one of our finest songwriters giving one of his finest performances. (K-W Record, May 28)

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (4AD/Beggars Banquet)

Strings can do so many things—like pour the syrup on a sappy, melancholy melody so that even the harshest heartbreak sings a beautiful song. Glaswegian quintet Camera Obscura brought a Swedish string section into their sound on their breakthrough 2006 album Let’s Get Out of This Country, where they moved their twee take on the ’60s into the more amped-up AM radio rock of the ’70s. They use the same team this time out, only now the strings sound like “Snowbird” and other countrypolitan hits of the period. There’s no twang or roots-rock revisionism here, but the ever-so-slightly country-ish backdrop serves the sad longing of Traceyanne Campbell’s lyrics perfectly.

She starts the album with the buoyant single “French Navy,” by spending “a week in a dusty library/ waiting for some words to jump at me”; she spends the rest of the album travelling the world (including a reference to a frozen river in Toronto) trying to navigate a toxic and tortured love affair with someone of whom the best she can say is, “When you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing.” Like any fine country music songwriter, Campbell has a keen eye for the smallest self-aware details; she details an early infatuation by asking, “Were my pupils dilated? Could you tell that I liked you?”

Despite the album title, Camera Obscura are much less maudlin as they mature as a band; though Campbell still thinks the saddest songs say so much, her love of big pop music never steers her into a sad-sack rut. These lovable, bookish softies have been hardened by years as a touring band, and can now flex their muscles even in their quietest moments. Though earlier releases all boasted crushworthy mixtape favourites, My Maudlin Career is their finest album, beginning to end—no wonder the title sounds like a greatest hits package. (K-W Record, May 7)

Leonard Cohen – Live in London (Sony)

“What a great honour to play for you,” intones the immortal baritone of Leonard Cohen at the beginning of this two-disc, 150-minute document of his 2008 world tour. Here is a 73-year-old man who, despite decades of success and reverential acclaim, remains remarkably modest, deferential to every one of his bandmates, and grateful for every moment on stage. And yet the honour is all ours.

I’ll be frank: I wept continuously when I saw this tour’s Toronto stop. I wept with tears of joy to hear the author of such magnificent prose sound so alive and appreciated, wept with tears of sadness knowing that he won’t be doing this for much longer and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking his place. Live in London is a perfect souvenir, and a helpful reminder that no, I wasn’t just drunk on the emotion of the moment.

Cohen is crooning with conviction and strength; even his detractors will have to admit that he’s singing in tune. The band is impeccable and tasteful; anyone put off by Cohen’s questionable studio choices discover that these songs sound better than they ever have, even schmaltz like “Ain’t No Cure For Love.” Perhaps most importantly, he finally reclaims “Hallelujah” for himself, after 25 years of his original version perplexing even the most rapturous fans of the song’s many cover versions.

It’s impossible to express just how cathartic it was, in the summer of 2008, to hear Cohen sing about how “democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” It’s a song that sounded quaint and funny when it was first released in 1992, but such a song can only achieve true resonance after one’s spirit has been bruised and battered and been forced to seek light through the smallest of cracks; suddenly, when given a glimpse of sunshine and the possibility of freedom, Cohen sounds like the first man to tell you the truth after (eight) years of lies.

He’s not always that heavy, of course—in fact, he’s often hilarious. All his best banter—which was routine at every tour stop—is included here, which hardly seems fair to those who have yet to witness the ongoing tour. Live in London is more than a document of Cohen’s comeback; it may well be—objectively speaking, outside the context and time when his earlier classics were released—the finest recording of his 40-year career. (K-W Record, May 14)

Steve Earle – Townes (New West)

Steve Earle named his son after Townes Van Zant, a Texan singer/songwriter who was an unheralded and haunting songwriter in the ’70s, one who was as troubled and as gifted as Hank Williams—and just as tragic, passing on well before his time came. Van Zant has had many champions, both before and after his death—Willie Nelson and Cowboy Junkies among the most vocal—but Steve Earle has never wasted a chance to wax poetic on what an inspiration Van Zant was to him, both as a songwriter and as a peer. So here Earle tackles 15 Townes Van Zant songs, as the ultimate tribute to the man.

And yet most Steve Earle fans will at least have heard of Townes Van Zant before, and unfortunately Earle doesn’t do these songs many favours. The arrangements here—ranging from straight-up bluegrass to string-adorned balladry to the more modern drum-machine-and-acoustic-guitar aesthetic of Earle’s last album, Washington Square Serenade—don’t compare to the moonlit, ghostly and unforgettable sound of Van Zant’s originals. Which is not a crime, and it might work with a different vocalist; but at this stage in his career, Steve Earle’s voice is suited only to singing Steve Earle songs—an interpreter he’s not.

A great performer singing the songs of a great writer—what could go wrong? Surely that’s not the question Earle was hoping to answer. (K-W Record, May 21)

Grand Duchy – Petits Four (Cooking Vinyl)

Whether or not the Pixies ever make a new record, fans of Frank Black were wondering if would ever return to the wonderfully weird vibe of his early solo recordings, after over a decade of a shift to respectable roots rock. The answer lies with his new project Grand Duchy, a duo with Violet Clark. When asked what appealed to him about working with Clark, Black says: “She was innocent. I hadn’t felt innocent in years. She digs the ’80s. I had spent the latter part of the ’80s doing my part to destroy the ’80s.”

And so here, Black can be heard over drum machines and synths, adding his proto-grunge guitar and acoustic textures, as well as unleashing his long-lost screaming technique as a counter-balance to Clark’s soft and subtle vocals. “Break the Angels” has a bass line with a striking resemblance to the Pixies’ “Debaser,” and much of the material here sounds as gleefully unconventional as Black’s earliest work—not that fans should be looking for a Pixies substitute, because they won’t find it. But anyone who was getting bored with Black would be advised to visit Grand Duchy. (K-W Record, May 21)

Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown (Warner)

21st Century Breakdown returns to the American Idiot formula: an extremely loose (arguably non-existent) narrative set in a politically polarized U.S. and loaded with signpost symbolism and rhetoric. One of the characters is actually born on the fourth of July, another is “the last of the American girls” who “puts her makeup on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland.”

The lyrics are ridiculous, aimed squarely at that moment of teenage life when you realize that life is going to suck and there are powers beyond your control: not surprisingly, Armstrong talks about the “class of ’13”—in other words, 14-year-olds about to enter high school, because they’re likely the only ones who will find any semblance of depth in his lyrics.

But who cares? The guitars are engineered to sound like a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. Drummer Tre Cool is probably the best punk drummer since Dave Grohl picked up a guitar. Armstrong manages to string suites of songs together effortlessly, and his melodic skills set him far apart from the pack.

And yet 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t hold a candle to the highs of American Idiot—an album where even the power ballads were exciting—and it doesn’t help matters that Armstrong saves all his best songs for the “third act,” as it’s notated. “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” arrives 14 songs in, with Armstrong bellowing, “I’m not f---ing around!” Good thing, because we were beginning to wonder. He rides out that rejuvenation through to the album’s conclusion, even managing pull a decent pop song out of a piece of bloated balladry called “21 Guns.”

Green Day may still be miles ahead of their mall-punk peers, but they can do better than this. It will be more interesting to see where they go once they get tired of rock operas. (K-W Record, May 28)

Gypsophilia – Sa-ba-da-ow! (gypsophilia.org)

Neither the band name nor the album title inspire much confidence, yet this Haligonian septet quickly silence any skeptics with a rousing take on gypsy jazz of the Django Reinhardt era. It’s not aiming to be some kind of historical re-enactment, and nor is it full of obvious nods to modernity. There’s an all-too-rare tastefully played wah pedal on some of the guitar solos, and pianist Sageev Oore breaks out his synthesizer in the most subtle of ways—that is, when he’s not sprinting around his piano like a silent film soundtracker. Leads are shared between trumpet, violin and the three guitarists, each of whom could be leading a band of their own. Recorded live off the floor, Sa-ba-da-ow! is inventive and melodic and guaranteed to be a sensation on the summer jazz festival circuit. (K-W Record, May 28)

Ben Harper and Relentless7 – White Lies for Dark Times (EMI)

It’s not like Ben Harper has been in a slump lately; his 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun may well be the best thing he’s ever done. But by putting his Innocent Criminals on hold and hooking up with an all-new backing band, a Texas trio incongruously called Relentless7, he’s being pushed to play some the most electrifying guitar work of his career. Drummer Jordan Robinson in particular lights a fire underneath him, and there’s no mistaking the live energy generated in these sessions of fuzzed-out, slightly psychedelic Texas boogie rock. Harper must have been having so much fun that he didn’t bother to edit some of his lyrics, such as: “I feel like an underpaid concubine who’s overstayed her welcome.” That’s a minor slip on an otherwise worthy rock’n’roll rebirth. (K-W Record, May 28)

Hotcha! – Dust Bowl Roots: Songs for the New Depression (hotcha.ca)

Hotcha are a Toronto duo that dress up in Depression-era garb for the artwork of their debut CD. But unlike hundreds of old-timey acoustic acts who are little more than a costume party, Hotcha bring something new to the table—namely, original songs that actually stand up to the likes of Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong, both of whom they cover here, along with classics like “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “Jesus on the Mainline.” Beverly Kreller and Howard Druckman jump between hot jazz and bluegrass with help from producer/percussionist Don Kerr and banjo whiz Chris Quinn, and while the arrangements rarely stray from the traditional, they sound vivid and fresh—thanks in part to Kerr’s production. Music got us through the last Depression, and maybe a return to informal living room music like the kind Toronto duo Hotcha! makes will get us through the next one. (K-W Record, May 28)

Pink Mountaintops – Outside Love (Jagjaguwar/Sonic Unyon)

For better or worse, the Stephen McBean always makes it easy to describe his music with easy reference points. His brand of record collector rock is splintered into two projects: the Black Sabbath/Pink Floyd amalgam of Black Mountain, and his somewhat more subdued personal project, Pink Mountaintops, which on this—their third album—sounds like Phil Spector and the Jesus and Mary Chain taking turns producing one of Neil Young’s folk albums. And in ways he hasn’t done since the first Black Mountain album, McBean manages to transcend the obvious reference points and helps us forget that we may have heard this a thousand times before—because we haven’t often heard it done this well.

Sunbaked, fuzzed-out guitars blend with distorted violin and tinny organs colour simple three-chord anthems designed for massive group singalongs on joyous but admittedly cliché lyrics such as “how deep is your love” and “everyone I love deserves a holiday in the sun.” McBean isn’t always “in love with all the lovers” and singing about “The Gayest of Sunbeams,” however; there are darker skies that also loom over several spooky songs here, most effectively on “While We Were Dreaming,” which McBean hands over to vocalist Ashley Webber (twin sister of Black Mountain’s Amber).

Pink Mountaintops used to be an excuse for McBean to be lazy and fool around on his four-track. Outside Love marks the moment when the project blossoms into a full band, starring members of Destroyer, Carolyn Mark’s Roommates, Superconductor, The Organ and Godspeed You Black Emperor. But more importantly, by regaining the control and focus that he surrendered on the last Black Mountain album—which got lost in a swamp of riffs, repetition, atmospheres and apocalypse—McBean also conjures his best collection of songs in years. It helps that he lets the sunlight peek through the storm clouds and allows himself to have some fun. It sounds like he invited half of Vancouver along to the party; you might as well join them. (K-W Record, May 14)

Ghislain Poirier – Soca Sound System EP (Ninja Tune/Outside)

Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier has helped bring Brazilian, dancehall and other equatorial rhythms into electronic dance music, invigorating a tired techno scene with genuine energy. But here, Poirier sets his own course with soca music, which is a natural fit for his club nights: the galloping, stuttering staccato beats are relentless, and Poirier’s futurist flavour sounds fantastically askew. MC Zulu shines on the track “Immigrant Visa”; no surprise there, as he was also the stand-out guest on Poirier’s 2007 dancehall-infused album No Ground Under, to which this is a worthy companion. (K-W Record, May 7)

Slim Twig – Contempt! (Paper Bag)

Listening to Contempt!, one would expect to find Slim Twig in dark corner of Coney Island, long after the rest of the freaks and carnies have vacated for the season. He would be sitting in a corner of the haunted house, with a decrepit organ at his command, and a series of wires hooked into dubious amplification systems and god-knows-what. He would be oblivious to any gathering audience, twiddling knobs and occasionally slicking back his pompadour, while he recounted hallucinations and delirious tales of infatuation in his best Elvis impersonation, bathed in heavy reverb for maximum spook effect.

In reality, Slim Twig is an artist from Toronto’s east end, who records various odd sounds in his basement before taking a ferry to Toronto Island to have them doctored by kindred spirit Dale Morningstar, who made similar mad scientist sounds as Dinner Is Ruined in the ’90s.

That Slim Twig is unique and compelling, there’s no question. Whether Contempt! succeeds as an album you’d want to hear any earlier in the day than 2 a.m. or outside of a Guy Maddin soundtrack is another question. (K-W Record, May 7)

The Western States – Bye and Bye (Dollartone)

Winnipeg roots band the Western States claim that they recorded this, their second album, live to tape. I don’t believe them. Either they’re as smooth and professional as a band with five albums and a decade of touring under their belt, or they somehow lucked into note-perfect vocal performances, piano and guitar solos. Or maybe they jammed and sang all the way down the interstate on their way to Texas, where they recorded the album. Bye and Bye doesn’t sound at all like a live album—arguably to its benefit, although it would be nice to hear this band loosen up a bit.

No point griping about what it isn’t, however, because Bye and Bye has lots to love. Trumpet, plenty of keyboards and stellar five-part harmony enhance Sean Buchanan’s solid songwriting, which has more than a few traces of early Wilco. Closing track “I’ll Be Free” is a candidate for a campfire classic, and many other tracks here hint that this band is one small step away from greatness. Added bonus: it all sounds spectacular, with an audiophile’s dedication to detail that’s extremely rare in an under-the-radar indie release. (K-W Record, May 21)

Score!: 20 Years of Merge Records – Various Artists (Merge)

One of the most reliable indie labels in the U.S. celebrates its 20th anniversary by inviting friends and fans of the label to cover their favourite tracks in the Merge catalogue, and the results are mixed. Perhaps it says something about the quality of Merge releases that even the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Ryan Adams and Broken Social Scene have trouble improving on the originals. Highlights include two stellar covers of underrated songwriter Chris Lopez, of Tenement Halls and the Rock*A*Teens, who gets star treatment here from the Shins and the New Pornographers. Another grossly underrated songwriter, Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers, is served well by a duet from The National and St. Vincent, and the reclusive East River Pipe is resuscitated by both Okkervil River and the Mountain Goats. Those tracks are all worth downloading individually; otherwise, you’re better off tracking down the originals or waiting for this compilation’s companion piece, featuring remixes of Merge material by an all-star line-up. (K-W Record, May 7)