Indie-tastic: The Rheostatics

The strange thing about Canadian music is that most times we have no idea what to do with it. Perhaps it's just a marketing problem that we have, or perhaps we are just selfish and greedy and want to keep all of our brilliant music to ourselves. In the 1980s, when the Rheostatics emerged from the mess of southern Ontario 'burbs that cradle the T-dot, specifically Etobicoke, a good thing was on the go. A number of independent singles and demos later, they were popular among the university kids of the city, and quite popular on CNFY with one of their singles, an ode to a Maple Leaf great 'The Ballad of Wendel Clark, pts. 1 & 2'.  Things were looking up for this indie-pop-rock group of fellows: Dave Bidini, Tim Vesely, Dave Clark and Martin Tielli.

And then Canada got greedy.

In 1991 they signed to indie label Intrepid Records and released the album Melville. All hail Canadian music-makers. This album is a startling breakthrough of pure-bred Canadian brilliance, and includes a cover of the Gordon Lightfoot tune, nay hymn, 'Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'. How's that for celebrating Canadian artistry? It's like... double amazing.

And down a golden paved Bruce Trail they went. Several more albums, including a film soundtrack, gave way to one of their only Top 40 tracks, 'Claire' (found on the Whale Music soundtrack as well as the album Introducing Happiness). After this dance with the charts, Clark left the band to focus on his new project, the dinner is ruined, and was replaced by Don Kerr. And the boys kept on rocking and kept on being Canadian. Their music is distinctly different. It's impossible to hear the music of the Rheostatics and not feel different. They built themselves and their music into icons, and the artistic community recognized this.

The National Gallery of Canada asked the Rheostatics to cut them a favour in 1995. Boarders don't exist in art, and the Rheos are definitely artists, so it seemed appropriate that they write some music to accompany the 75th anniversary celebration of Canadian art icons The Group of Seven. Many similarities can be drawn between the musicians in the Rheostatics and the visual artists of the Group of Seven. Both are incredibly distinctive, yet widely accessible. Amazing.  So, that year, the Rheos worked with pianist Keven Hearn (who would go on to be one of the Barenaked Ladies) and created the album Music Inspired by the Group of Seven. Art Rock, indeed!

And then the Tragically Hip called, and the Rheostatics opened for their tour. And then more albums flowed from their instruments, and subtle political criticisms flowed through their lyrics ('Bad Time to be Poor' in reference to the state of Ontario during the government of Mike Harris).  In 1997 the boys released an album based on a children's book written by guitarist Bidini. This album is quite the art piece, with narration between tracks and accomopanying illustrations.  Beautiful. These indie rockers care about their art, and nurture its frontiers, especially on a Canadian front where definitions are hard to come by. And what do they think about it? Well, Dave Bedini thinks "People have painted us as being iconoclasts although, more often than not lately, I hear us described as Canadian icons. I think it's great to be iconoclastic icons. It means that people acknowledge you as being this force that represents constant change and constant challenge. Canada is recognized for being a cavalier place, culturally, always trying to push it harder, certainly in the audacity of Canadian film and literature. There's no reason music can't have that same reputation." Cheers, I say.

Like all good Canadian bands, the Horseshoe Tavern is a special place for the Rheostatics. Their 2001 release Night of the Shoot Stars was promoted and celebrated by 11 consecutive shows on 11 consecutive nights at the notorious pub on Queen St. W in Toronto. And what an event it was! Dubbed the Fall Nationals, the event became a yearly occurance with the band playing 12 nights in 2002 and 13 nights in 2003. Phew! That's a lot of rock.

Since then, Kerr has left the band and Michael Phillip Wojewoda has joined. The album 2067 was released in 2004. And they still tour, they still work on solo projects, other artistic mediums (film, for one), and they still keep up their merits as influential Canadian musicians.

Dave Bidini has released another book since his first, On a Cold Road. The Best Game You Can Name, rightly titled in reference to a Stompin' Tom tune, describes a single game of his team in Toronto's musicians' league.

Time Vesely has released a solo album, The End of Party One, with his Vancouver-based band The Violent Archers.

And in April, the Rheostatics are playing a ten-day, eight show tour in China. A special compilation album to follow. Check them out.

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Sloan: I raise my glass to the B-side.

There's no such thing as an uncool Sloan fan. Despite the fact that this Halifax quartet is credited with one of the single most self-referencial rock lyrics, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans", it does not apply to them. You'll find that most Sloan fans have a quiet dignity about them, and can truly appreciate witty lyrics and subtle political references. And there isn't a hipster alive who doesn't adore the self-depricating irony that has been morphed into stoic confidence and creative genius in the four boys that make up Sloan.

Sloan is Chris Murphy, Andrew Scott, Patrick Pentland, and Jay Ferguson. They became Sloan in 1992 when Halifax became a Canadian "Seattle", pumping out some kick ass grunge-pseudo-pop inspired tunes like those belonging to Eric's Trip, Thrush Hermit, and The Super Friendz. Their first full-length album is the celebrated 'Smeared' featuring the sardonic anthem 'Underwhelmed' that can really give 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' a run for it's money. As well as 'I Am the Cancer', which is equally wonderful in its mid-90s disonant drone we call music.

True success came in 1994 with the release of their second album Twice Removed. This album changed my life. Featuring tracks like 'I Hate My Generation' and 'Bells On' which remarks "If you had a funeral, I'd be there with bells on. La la la la", this album is a perfect creation of fabulous songs. As a whole, it is one of the most effective and solid albums out there. I can't even express in words how brilliant it is, and it makes me sad to know that it just isn't as recognized as it should be. It is definitely in my top 5 albums of all time, and I'm not alone on this one. Spin Magaize named it one of the "Best Albums You Didn't Hear" in 1994, and that's as true today as it was then.

Since their plaid-wearing-fan-days of the mid to late 90s, Sloan has managed to maintain its Canadian fame with moderate American glory. It is their longevity that is truly admirable. Longevity isn't something that usually sticks to Canadian artists, or at least not the majority of them who don't sell their souls to American citizenship (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when it pays the bills). Sloan has also managed to retain their association with indie pop rock... although, generally speaking, since the Canadian music scene is so tiny compared to the States, most artists, even though on a major label, appear as truly 'indie'. Sloan was indie at first, truly. They released their first EP, Peppermint, on their own label called Murderecords. And now they've got their own Best Of album. How do you like that? Claps for Canadians.

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A Nation of Rockers: The Tragically Hip

It seems appropriate that I begin this journey into Canadian Rockingness with The Tragically Hip. For one, they represent a lot more than music in many Canadians' eyes. They are a movement, a symbol, a manifestation of what it feels like to be Canadian. Their music and lyrics capture an essence of being that we Canadians can never seem to put into words, or even into showy practise. We ask ourselves what we are, how we are seen from an international perspective, but fail to articulate anything at all. We are so much, too much even, while being nothing at all as to allow any and every Canadian the freedom to be who they please (tossed salad syndrome? maybe). At any rate, The Hip have been able to surpass their beer-drinking tail-gating fan persona and get as close to defining what it means to be 'Canadian', with only a simple melody. What Canadian doesn't really truly feel Canadian when listening to 'Wheat Kings' off The Hip's third album Fully Completely? Their fame is also exclusively Canadian, as Wikipedia.com notes "They have never found great success in the United States, but have never specifically sought it". Moving on, now. Ahem. And secondly, it seems appropriate that I begin with The Hip because I lived in Kingston for four years and was neighbour to Hip guitarist Rob Baker (the one with the long hair). His house is small and humble, and very close to Queen's University (which I was attending at the time).

So. The Tragically Hip. Not so tragic, really. Fronted by Gord Downie (a poet who is known for shouting heavily political rants at his audiences), The Hip formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1983. Now consisting of Mr. Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, and Johnny Fay, they retain their whole but extend to many solo projects. Like the rite of passage for most Canadian bands, The Hip found recognition while playing at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto as were signed to a major label. The Horseshoe Tavern was and is still a cornerstone in the evolution of Canadian music. It's such a seedy little pub, but the walls and ceiling drip with history (sometimes literally).

To see their discography, click here.

The thing I really admire about The Tragically Hip is how they really do celebrate being Canadian, and supporting Can Con. Apart from singing songs about Hockey, they have made cameos on CTV's new hit show 'Corner Gas'. They leant their faces and their music to the 2002 film 'Men With Brooms'. They performed at Live 8, of course, as well as played a huge show in their hometown Kingston the previous summer (such a huge band doesn't usually play such small venues that Kingston has to offer). They all still live in Canada, and have numerous tribute bands litering the country, such as The Practically Hip in southern Ontario.

Grace, too. Their music is multi-levelled... maybe even "deep". Gord Downie truly is a poet (published, in fact. Check out his book and accompanying album 'Coke Machine Glow'). His artistry flows through every lyric, making each song a tribute to his craft and an immense musical experience. His fellow band members offer equal talents. How do such talented people find one another? Perhaps we'll never know. But we do know for certain is that this group of men, these self-proclaimed tragic hipsters, have chemsitry. Their live shows rock a hard bargin. I highly recommend witnessing a Tragically Hip show once before you die.

No dress rehersal. This is our life. Their music is versatile, even in its raw truthfullness. I'm pretty sure that back before CD-burners were readily available and people made mixed-tapes like no tomorrow, every single compilation that I put together included a Hip tune. They seem to have captured every moment, every memory, every emotion of an entire nation and put it into song. Wow.

So what does it mean to be Canadian? It means to be tragically hip, as taught to us by the one and only Tragically Hip.

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Can Con Rock On

Canadian Content is important in Canada. Canadian Content, or 'Can Con' as the hipsters say, is all about Canadian artists getting their material played on Canadian broadcasting mediums. So, basically, radio stations and television networks like Much Music and any other form of broadcasting must air a certain amount of Canadian music/stories/images/whatever in every block of material. Apart from being culturally important in sharing experience between Canadians and further developing our artistic escapades, Can Con also creates tons of jobs for Canadians in production and distribution. Can Con is a good thing, and needs to be celebrated.
And so I have begun this little project in order to support Canadian Content and those who produce it. I am, as you have probably already guessed, a proud Canadian. And my interest in the Canadian music scene began at a very early age when I discovered the idol of pre-pre-pre-teen rock, the talented Mr. Fred Penner. I went to all his shows, and could belt out 'The Cat Came Back' like a champ. And I haven't changed. From driving to California to catch a Broken Social Scene show to writing secret love letters to Hawksley Workman, I support Canadians in all forms of rocking. And I will dispense this love to you here.

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