Monday, March 21, 2005

 

Fifty Tracks: Day Five

Wondering what all this is about? Before you begin, you might want to read days one, two, three and four. The List so Far: Round 1 Hockey: Jane Siberry (Mike) Helpless: Neil Young (FC: Keith) I Go Blind: 54-40 (Peter) Nothing at All: Maestro Fresh Wes (Aaron) Tired of Waking Up Tired: The Diodes (Carol) A Case of You: Joni Mitchell (Carl) Round 2: Have Not Been The Same: Slow (Mike) Hallelujah (Live): Leonard Cohen (Keith) Wheat Kings: The Tragically Hip (Pete) Vetoed By Carol Subdivisions: Rush (Carol) Vetoed By Keith In today's (psychotic) episode: We get a visit from some of Victoria's greatest musicians (No, not Nelly Furtado). Toronto steals sure victory from Ottawa (again!). And the continued search for Aaron Wherry . . . Carl: I'm nominating Rags and Bones by No Means No (Listen to Rags and Bones) If what we’re trying to accomplish here is assembling a counter-canon to the 50 Tracks gospel, I couldn’t imagine a better place to look than the work of Victoria, B.C.’s No Means No. Coming up out of the hardcore scene, and one of Canada’s longest-running and most influential contributions to the international post-punk underground, No Means No is made up of brothers Rob (bass, mostly) and John (drums) Wright and a changing set of musical partners. Founding the band on a rhythm section gave No Means No a unique sound from the first, a chugging, push-and-pull dynamic that proved the perfect setting for its acerbic declamatory vocal style. It was like a minimalist reinvention of prog-rock within a punk aesthetic, in a way that seems very Canadian to me -- a lot of the same geek appeal as Rush, but with Rush'’s indulgences rigorously purged and the Minutemen’'s one-band-culture, militantly critical aesthetic smuggled in. There has never been anything groovy about No Means No; they’re punk rock Mounties whose songs whirl and kick in strict formation like the Musical Ride. They'’ve also got that classic Canadian sense of ironic distance and self-hatred - No Means No is a product of the SCTV era - but there’s something totally anti-Canadian about their assertiveness. They don'’t apologize and don’t cloak their perceptions in goofiness or pat themselves on the back for poetic sensitivity. Theirs is a suburban sound, unquestionably, but it’s no emo: It’s more an after-the-fall sensibility, one that looks around at consumer society and says, hell, there’s got to be something smarter, more serious and grown-up in life than settling for this. Their songs feel like the sound of people chainsawing apart their own stupid assumptions and hammering alternatives together insight by insight, axiom by axiom. Doing so in public, over 25 years of fairly prolific recording and frequent touring, especially in the mid-to-late 1980s, helped change Canadian music. It put Victoria on the map as one of Canada’'s most creative and independent-minded music scenes, but in general No Means No raised the bar in Canadian music, and invited us all to drink there, showing a lot of young musicians that you could rock and think at the same time, that you could be both funny and rigorous all at once, that it wasn’t just a matter of mainstream-glitz versus underground-sloppy, and that Canadians could do it just as well as the Americans, but with our own voices. It’s not an influence often acknowledged, but when the subject of No Means No comes up, listen to musicians in their late 20s or 30s start to gush. The band deserves more credit. Now, why Rags and Bones? Frankly, I could have chosen a lot of tracks, but it seemed best to go with something from Wrong, the band'’s most highly regarded and influential album, recorded with the guitarist of their peak period, Andy Kerr, at the height of the group’s energy and prolific production. Rags and Bones (also called Rags & Bones or Rags ‘n’ Bones, in various versions) is a standout track there, ranging across religion and race and sex, politics and death, beginning with Christ on the cross and rocketing to white men finally learning to sing the blues, then through some kind of submarine-imagery resurrection fantasy, the chorus “Rags and bones - are we finally alone?” which shoots from bass to high aching tenor in a perfect evocation of harsh reality and human vulnerability, and then the piece de resistance, the bridge, where in a military-style chant (a frequent No Means No stylistic device) they declare, “If I could choose/ choose to believe or not to believe/ You know I would choose/ not to/ not to believe!” repeatedly, and then stop suddenly at the end of the section to admit, “But I can’t choose.” It’s a treatment of religion far subtler than punk’s usual pissing from a great height, and an unusual thing in any kind of treatment of the Big Questions - something approaching an original thought. Whenever I think of it, I still feel like jumping up and down. Carol: Thank GOD someone nominated this band! I was getting ready to do so myself. What a great track! Much more musical than their excellent angry debut "Sex Mad". DOA seems like the CBC's concession to the youth vote, while completely ignoring the sophistication of No Means No. DOA was all about fist raising anthems that don't date well. Indeed, I saw them 3 years ago and felt kind of silly. Of all the sloganeering political punks (Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg), DOA came off as old. It didn't feel right. No Means No feels great. I can listen to them now and it feels fresh and different. Still. That's musicianship and dynamics, folks. Great stuff! Pete: Nuts, I was itching to use a veto and, having never heard Rags N Bones before (or, more likely, just having forgotten it) I was hoping it would suck. I'd lift my vetozooka to my shoulder and fire a honking big shell at it, blowing it off the blog and simultaneously applying salve to the scars from having had my Hip track squashed. But the No Means No lads are just too earnest, and too akin to that '77-'79 Brit punk sound that pleases me so, for me to fire them. I wonder if Jon Spencer ever heard this song? When the singer gives that warbly "rrrrags and bones," it sounds an awful lot like Spencer doing his post/faux Elvis thing. Anyhow, I do like the track, though I expect it's one of those tracks that I would have spent a lot of more time listening to years ago I was a bit younger than I would listen to it now. Mike: I haven't listened to No Means No in at least 10 years and my immediate impression on listening to Rags and Bones was to think Minutemen. Holy cow Carl, did you ever nail that descriptor. When the band started yelling "She rises captain/ captain dive! Dive!" - fIREHOSE's "brave captain" was the next song I had to play. Don't know why nomeans no and Minutemen (and I guess fIREHOSE) were never previously linked in my mind. I also don't know why I haven't listened to this band since Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? If nothing else, this 50 tracks exercise may result in the purchase of a turntable and digging through my basement in search of all that old vinyl. Good pick. Keith: Nomeansno belong on this list. Unfortunately for me, I missed out on them and a lot of the classic punk rock the first time around (there wasn't a lot of college radio in Kitimat B.C.) so I've come them late in life (and only in spurts). I agree with Mike, though, the Minutemen reference is right on the money. Mike, do you have your next pick? Mike: Good evening all, Sorry for the delay. My parents are down visiting - they get to hang out with their granddaughter for a few days and we get to sleep in a little later and get home a little earlier with the daycare drop-offs and pick-ups temporarily suspended from our schedules. And at this point you don't want to know what I'd do for an extra 30 minutes of sleep. When I excused myself from their company tonight to write this post my wife explained what we were all up to. My mum quickly volunteered that she'd been listening to their 50 picks and couldn't understand what Shelagh Rogers was going on about (apparently Mum doesn't like Shelagh's taste in music). My father supported my mother claiming that, of late, the CBC has been making rather poor musical choices. I take this as further evidence that the CBC is not only losing the youth vote but also that of Generation U (or however far back in the alphabet you have to go to reach my parents generation - both were born in the 30s). Don't know what Mum and Dad would make of the Weakerthans and One Great City! My pick for round 3, pick 1 (or wherever the heck we are in this process with two vetoes and an APB out for Mr. Wherry) but I hope they'd cover my back better than they did poor Shelagh. (Ed's Note: Aaron's just got back from SXSW in Austin. He should be joining us tomorrow!) (Listen to One Great City!) One of the many things that drives me crazy about living in Toronto is the constant municipal sales-job. It seems we're always trying to convince ourselves of how great a place this is (if you gotta use the prefix "World Class"…) Or when other cities (Hello Ottawa!) want to get in some sort of comparative municipal pissing match when our sports teams play each other - as if the Leafs eliminating the Sens from the playoffs every spring is what makes Toronto a better city than Ottawa. Even in the face of this goofy civic boosterism (that we all know if goofy, right?) how many of us allow where we’re from or where we call home to shape part of our identity? And how many of us are actually willing to admit what this song calls attention to - the crappiness of the supposed place that defines us - of belaboured commutes, the ubiquity of dollar stores and unbridled development. This song provides an honest voice that sings out about how the place we call home doesn't quite measure up to the Chamber of Commerce brochures, that finally provides an honest assessment that cuts through the civic boosterism and bind love for all things local. "The Guess Who Suck, the Jets were lousy anyway" Just once I'd love to hear a Torontonian actually admit how bad my beloved Maple Leafs actually are. That no, if Wayne hadn't stuck Dougie we wouldn't have won the cup and yes, they were pretty lucky to get by the Sens this year (Thank-you Lalime!). Or to even admit that the Flyers pretty much hand the leafs their lunch each spring. But what gives this song it's power is the subtle turn at the end. As we near the conclusion of a song that appears to be about home town hatred, the narration shifts and the song turns on itself. And in what I would argue is a very Canadian "third-way" perspective, the city that has been the subject of all this scorn is now the victim of the developer's wrecking ball and in the narrator's tone you realize that it's not hatred he's expressing, but frustration. That this place he calls home, that defines him, has sold its soul to the people who boost the place, who don't see all the warts and the wrinkles are often the ones that messed it up in the first place. For more of that, see Toronto: lakeshore or condo developers... PS: If Aaron continues to be AWOL I have picks ready from my folks. Dad offered up Ian Tyson's Four Strong Winds or Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain (we had to decipher the second pick - he called it "The song about the guy who can't jump a jet plane by that fellow from Orillia") Mum says if she can't pick something by Louis Armstrong, anything by Anne-Murray is ok by her. Keith: Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Four Strong Winds? Two things: 1) I think your folks are already secretly producers at the Corp's 50 tracks (all three of those tracks are on the list) 2) Would anybody object to us giving Satchmo retroactive, posthumous Canadian citizenship? Anybody? I thought not. Anyway, Mike, Great pick! Does everyone know WHY it's a great pick? Because I told everyone in Ottawa listening to All in a Day (and those listening on the Net in Toronto . . . it seems) that I planned on picking the Weakerthans tonight. It's like getting TWO picks in one day! I LOVE this song. Rather than belabour the point, I'll just quote something I wrote here on PWI back in August: John K. Samson, the Weakerthan's songwriter and lead vocalist, is arguably Canada's greatest living songsmith (yes, I know Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are still breathing). He has an ability to write strident political songs that crack and tremble with heartfelt pathos, and love songs that ring out like man-the-barricades battle cries. The results are sometimes confusing, but in a good way. Take Pamphleteer, from 2000's Left & Leaving. It has led to a "tastes great-less filling" debate (is it a love song in political agitator's clothing or a political anthem with a love-story thrown in? At the end of the day, who cares if it's this good?) Weakerthans records also have an undeniable sense of place. It's a terroir that almost no other popular music I've heard can touch. When Sampson sings "I hate Winnipeg" it's more with tired resignation than smoldering anger. That's because home towns are like family. You love them for their quirks and flaws as well as their strengths. They excite and disappoint and frustrate and enliven you in ways that are easy to predict, but difficult to change. Carol: Wholeheartedly concur! I would absolutely include this on an CanCon mix CD. The beauty is while it makes specific references to the city, the feeling is universal. Anyone stuck in a city they don't like (ahem) can relate. Mike, the Leafs have sucked because the fans let them suck. If people didn't fork over $100 for crap seats to watch Ballard/Stavro put a losing team on the ice croak in round 2 then perhaps we'd have won a cup in colour. I have another theory, too. They haven't won the cup since I've lived in Canada -- all my life. I am willing to set up a fund to which fans can contribute in aid of my emigration to the US. At which time, the Leafs will march up and down Yonge Street having won Lord Stanley's Mug. Takers? Keith: With some fear of turning this into a boring hockey taunt, I, and thousands of other Senators fans, would be more than happy to ensure you remain gainfully employed here north of the 49th. Canada needs you Carol! Mike: When I first moved to Ottawa my sister advised me that, should I ever get homesick, to go to any mall or stand under any underpass. Don't know what that says about Toronto and the awful homogeneity of our cities, but there is a great deal of truth in her solution. About three or four years ago I went on a roadtrip to Nashville to see a bunch of bands. We were in a club one night and I looked about and realized that I might as well be at Lee's, the Horseshoe, Richards or the Sidetrack. Only the brands of beer were different, the hipsters and bands remained the same. As much as I love the leafs I couldn't in good conscience send you to live in Buffalo or Rochester...they also haven't won since I've been around and I doubt they will any time soon. Sigh. If I were to try your approach, I fear that Keith and the Sens fans would find me a very small town in a red-state to call home...perhaps I need to go to the EU for things to change... Keith - we all know the first rule in 50 Tracks is not to talk about 50 tracks, so I can't help it if you went on the radio and blabbed about a song I was planning on selecting in the fifth round. If it makes you feel better, you can have first dibs on (I Feel Like) Gerry Cheevers (Stitch Marks On My Heart). Keith: Thanks, Mike. I may take you up on that (that Chixdiggit track is actually pretty cool), but not tonight. Nope, I'll get one last pick in before calling this a night (and then we'll let the vetos start rolling tomorrow) and it won't be from Calgary, it'll be from Kingston. Before Sarah Harmer was the idol of thousands of housewives who liked their music "not too hard not too soft" she rocked. Weeping Tile, the band she fronted before her breakout as a solo artist, had two full lengths and an EP to their name before they split. Guitar player Luther Wright went on to spend more time with his other outfit Luther Wright and the Wrongs Harmer went on to become the gingam-wearing soft rock alternative to Sarah McLaughlin (or was that Kathleen Edwards? I get them mixed up). Weeping Tile's first full-length (1995's Cold Snap) has a highlight in Westray; an aggressive, dynamic, hook-filled four minutes which may well be Canada's great lost protest song. Westray combines Canadian history and geography with lyrics inspired by Robert Service's Cremation of Sam McGee (repeat after me: More Canadian than Maple Syrup and equalization payments.) (Listen to Westray) Westray also shows off Harmer's expressive pipes which hold up quite nicely against the chorus's power cords and cowbell. Her purrs and growls combine with the dark, wintry imagry appropriated from Service ("There are strange things done, under the gun by the men who toil for coal/And eastern gales have howled out tales that would make your blood run cold") to evoke desperation, frustration and loss. Let's not pick it because its really, really Canadian, though. Let's pick it because it rocks. Don't stop there! Check out DAY SIX!
Comments:
Hey folks, being a fan of great music and also being from Winnipeg, I love the Weakerthans pick. I think half a dozen songs from Reconstruction Site or Left and Leaving could have made this list. If you're interested in a great article about listening to The Weakerthans, check out Paul Tough's article, City Still Breathing, from Geist Magazine, issue 45.
 
This is to the fellow who chose "Deeper Than Beauty":

Can we get married?
 
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