On Sunday, August 16 I was very privileged to sit down with Pat Francis and Mike Siegel to record an episode of the podcast Rock Solid. We played some music, joked around, it was a jolly old time. The topic of the episode was Canadian music, which I chose because I felt there was a lot of great Canadian music that wasn’t getting enough attention outside the country. I don’t like the music because it’s Canadian, that’s just a bonus. Personally Below are my musings on the 19 songs I played and some other random tidbits.
I should start by mentioning some of the artists I didn’t play. Two in particular I left out intentionally: Neil Young, because Rock Solid has already devoted an entire episode to him; and The Tragically Hip, because they’ve been brought up numerous times on the podcast, I was sure Mike or Pat would play them. Another absence that might be notable is The Guess Who. I like The Guess Who, but I’m not obsessed with them. I find sometimes Canadians will interpret non-obsession as hatred which is unfortunate. The Guess Who are great but I like them like I like The Hollies: they have number of great songs that I will listen to from time to time. But if we were to compare them to the other major Canadian band active during the same time period, The Band, there’s no contest. The Guess Who is just not anywhere near The Band’s level of excellence. But The Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame two years after The Guess Who. Maybe I ought not to compare these musically very distinct bands and people might stop misinterpreting my love of The Band for hatred of The Guess Who.
Remember, musical nationalism is pretty stupid. Despite my choice of topic, I rank Canada as maybe my third-to-fifth favourite country musically. It competes with Australia and Brazil for those spots. UK is number two and the United States is obviously number one. Now, if anyone tries to tell you there’s a country that’s produced more good music then the US, that person is a deluded nationalist. On the other hand, with it’s large, diverse population and strong culture of freedom of expression, if the US hadn’t produced the most good music then that would be an absolute embarrassment.
Also, Bandcamp is a great website for independent artists. I try to use Bandcamp over iTunes whenever I can because they only take at most a 15% cut. iTunes takes 30% and then the label takes a big chunk of that remaining 70% and it’s like that Kinks song “The Moneygoround”.
#1 & #15: Joel Plaskett Emergency – “A Million Dollars” / Thrush Hermit – “Violent Dreams”
The Maritimes, especially Nova Scotia, were a hotbed of amazing music in the 1990s. The best known bands are probably Sloan, their power pop brethren The Super Friendz, the lo-fi darlings Eric’s Trip and the hard rocking Thrush Hermit. They’re all amazing bands worth checking out, but it’s the last one that is probably my favourite. Thrush Hermit was much like Hüsker Dü, in that it had two principle songwriters who rarely collaborated with one another. But, with all due respect to Rob Benvie and occasional composer Ian McGettigan, Joel Plaskett’s songs were always the best. So it’s no wonder that after Thrush Hermit broke up in 1999, Plaskett has gone on to have an amazing solo career. “Violent Dreams” by Thrush Hermit is probably one of my top 25 favourite songs ever. “A Million Dollars” by Joel Plaskett Emergency is just a really great pop song.
#2: Caribou – “Can’t Do Without You”
Caribou’s Dan Snaith has done it again. Previously he’s set his sights on krautrock and psychedelic pop among other things and now he’s written what might be the perfect house song.
I should admit something. Snaith is sort of my friend. Really more the friend and employer of my brother Brad but I’ve met him on a number of occasions and he’s a super cool guy. It would probably weird if I just called him out of the blue (especially because I don’t like telephones and I don’t know his number) but I’m just going to go ahead and say he’s my friend. That being said, I’ve followed his career since before I met him and I’m always excited to hear where he’s going musically.
Lyrics have not always been a focal point of Snaith’s music. That’s not to say his lyrics weren’t important or good, but rather sometimes they were non-existent (i.e. an instrumental) or buried in the mix. In fact, counting all his various aliases, possibly only half of Snaith’s released output has lyrics. So maybe that’s why this song hits me so hard. It’s lyrics are quite simple, mainly consisting of repetitions of the title or some variant of it with a brief stanza coming at the very end of the song. But maybe it’s the simplicity of its message that makes it so beautiful.
#3: Daniel Lanois – “The Maker”
Daniel Lanois is a very talented producer who I don’t think is appreciated enough in Canada. Or maybe it’s just me that wasn’t appreciating him enough in the past. He’s best known for his productions of U2 that he did with Brian Eno, and I’ll admit, due to Eno’s fame, I always just assumed he was the junior partner. But that is wrong, as can be seen by the many albums that Lanois has produced on his own. His first solo album, Acadie (French for “Acadia”) was (obviously) self-produced and released in 1989.
Lanois is not as strong a songwriter as some of the musicians he’s produced, but how can you be when you’ve produced U2 and Bob Dylan? But he is a great songwriter, and those talents aren’t usually heard by just listening to his productions. He did write “Where Will I Be?” by Emmylou Harris on her album Wrecking Ball which is a devastatingly beautiful song.
This album doesn’t sound “Cajun” in the traditional sense of zydeco music, etc. But it is very much infused with the soul of New Orleans. The lyrics read like a piece of classic Catholic mysticism. Having The Neville Brothers join in was a great idea and the bilingual singing is a nice touch. French is his native tongue and he seems very comfortable singing in it. I’d love to hear him do an entire album in French.
#4: Leonard Cohen – “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-on”
Leonard Cohen really is Canada’s Bob Dylan. They are both amazing lyricists with voices that are an acquired taste. Cohen certainly isn’t as good a songwriter as Dylan, and he certainly isn’t as musically adventuresome. But he somewhat makes up for this with his literary credentials that for whatever reason Bob Dylan hasn’t been given.
This track bears some explaining. I don’t think anyone would pick “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-on” as Cohen’s best song and it certainly isn’t very representative of his entire oeuvre. Cohen’s music career can roughly be divided into two halves. From the sixties until the end of the seventies where he used acoustic folk arrangements and sang in a higher register. Then from the eighties to the present where he performs more in a soft rock mold utilizes a lower talk-singing. His 1977 album, Death Of A Ladies’ Man does not fit into either of these. Backing vocals on this song are done by Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg among others.
#5: Bob Dylan and The Band – “This Wheel’s on Fire”
The song “This Wheel’s on Fire” is best known from The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink but the original version from the basement tapes. My next door neighbour in residence at university, Leks Maltby, got me onto this treasure trove of material which was finally released legally last year. Perhaps it’s because their songs often cover very American subject matter, but I feel like The Band doesn’t get the respect it deserves as a Canadian band. Neil Young is in the same boat of having lived most of his life south of the border but he’s somehow seen as more Canadian. Maybe it’s as simple as Levon Helm’s southern accent. The Band is spectacular. Probably the greatest Canadian band ever. There has been controversy of late concerning the actual extent of Robbie Robertson’s songwriting genius. I find a lot of the evidence against him unconvincing. Either way, it doesn’t change how amazing the music is. This particular song was co-written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko. Dylan sings lead on the original recording and Danko sings lead on The Band’s version.
#6: Pick a Piper – “Lucid in Fjords”
My brother, Brad Weber, has been making music for over 15 years. I’ve been an eyewitness his progression as a musician. While earlier bands like Lazyeye and Winter Equinox certainly displayed heavy influence by My Bloody Valentine and Tortoise, respectively, he’s always managed to put his own unique stamp on things. The current outlet for his musical genius is Pick a Piper, a band he runs with two high school friends. While I think Brad has certainly learned a lot being the touring drummer for Caribou, Pick a Piper I think is his most personal project yet. In particular his use of vocals and lyrics have reached a new high that makes his sound both more accessible and more exciting.
Pick a Piper’s first album was released in 2013 and it is really good. My favourite track is “Hour Hands” which features some amazing brass work by Colin Fisher and Steve Ward. If only the song could be ten minutes longer. The track I played on Rock Solid is entitled “Lucid in Fjords” and it’s more of a pop song. It features vocals by Ryan McPhun of The Ruby Suns. Pick a Piper’s second album should be out sometime next year.
#7: The Diodes – “Tired of Waking Up Tired”
In late ’70s Toronto punk rock bands like The Viletones, Teenage Head and The Diodes ripped shit up. The Viletones had great songs like “Danger Boy” and “Swastika Girl,” and Teenage Head had “Top Down” and “Let’s Shake”. But the best song of them all was “Tired of Waking Up Tired” by The Diodes. Their first album came out in 1977, and it was a flop so their record label didn’t promote their second album in 1979 south of the border much and that is shame because Americans missed out on this gem.
#8: The Pursuit of Happiness – “I’m an Adult Now”
The Pursuit of Happiness is a band I discovered at university. In class, actually. At Wilfrid Laurier University I took a course called History of Rock Music with Dr. Brent Hagerman. It was amazing. It was entertaining and highly academic. Kids, stay in school, it sometimes pays off. The prof tried to use Canadian music whenever possible and this is one of the songs. It’s by The Pursuit of Happiness. This song was originally released in a rather lo-fi version 1986 and was a top 40 hit in Canada. Two years later they re-recorded it with Todd Rundgren but unfortunately, aside from an appearance on Beavis and Butt-head, they were never able to crack the American market.
#9: k-os – “Follow Me”
I have a lot of respect for musicians who can both sing and rap well because they’re a rare breed. Two very different examples would be Mike Patton of Faith No More, etc. and Lauryn Hill. k-os employs a lot of live instruments including acoustic guitar so his sound is not completely unlike that of Hill or her former bandmate Wyclef Jean. Between production, singing and rapping I think his rapping is actually the weakest. And his lyrics about how he hates the state of current hip hop can get quite tiresome. His first two albums, Exit and Joyful Rebellion are both quite excellent. His third album Atlantis: Hymns for Disco sports an epically awesome title and contains, oddly, very little disco. More disco usually equals a better album.
#10 & 11: Harmonium – “100,000 raisons” / Robert Charlebois – “California”
So there is a tendency when discussing the best Canadian music, even within Canada, to completely ignore over a fifth of the population, namely those who speak French. I’m not going to be able to fix this myself, but I did play two Québécois tracks on Rock Solid (Lanois is a Quebecker, but most of his recorded output is in English). Speaking of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, neither Harmonium nor Charlebois are members of this body which apparently hates Francophone music (no La Bolduc, Félix Leclerc, etc.). Also, journalist Bob Mersereau’s book The Top 100 Canadian Albums horribly under represents French Canadian music. I’ll admit, there’s tons of it out there that I don’t know about. Not being able to speak French is certainly a barrier.
Harmonium is a folky progressive rock band in the vein of Jethro Tull. Their first album is fairly straightforward and accessible but the two following it get pretty noodly and pretentious. I still love the stuff, though.
Robert Charlebois is a gem of a man. Very few singers are comfortable playing bossa nova, psychedelic rock and disco among other genres. His psychedelic phase is my favourite, namely the albums Robert Charlebois avec Louise Forestier (aka Lindberg) and Québec Love. One day I’ll learn French and then I’ll be able to not understand him in his native tongue.
#12: Owen Pallett – “Song For Five & Six”
I got to meet Owen Pallett backstage at the Bestival on Toronto Island this past June. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself too much. I just introduced myself as Brad Weber’s brother and explained how he was a great artist and arranger. I made sure to put arranger in there. But I stopped there. But I could have gone on to say how his and Arcade Fire’s soundtrack totally made the movie Her, and his gorgeous strings on Now, More Than Ever by Jim Guthrie have got me through many a hardship over the past decade. I could have said I like The Last Shadow Puppets way better than Arctic Monkeys, principally due to (again) his strings. I really love string arrangements in pop music, and really, no one does them better than Owen Pallett. Thank you for the music.
#13: Whitehorse – “Sweet Disaster”
Whitehorse are a husband and wife duo consisting of solo artists Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. The gentlemen at Rock Solid said they thought this song sounds like a James Bond theme. I hadn’t previously heard that, but after it was pointed out to me, I definitely hear it now. This band loves their reverb. And their harmonies. My girlfriend, the beautiful Ellen Jakubowski, introduced me and bought us concert tickets as a Christmas present. This song is from their third album which just came out this year. Their second album is very excellent. Their first album is not as good although they do a pretty good cover of “I’m On Fire” which somehow works as a duet.
#14: Spirit of the West – “Home for a Rest”
If you don’t like this song, you’re probably not at your best.
#16: Ocean – “Put Your Hand in the Hand”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a lot of hippies found God and became known as the Jesus freaks or Jesus people. They made what’s called Jesus rock or Jesus music. As a Christian I can categorically say, it’s not good gospel music. At best it’s half-decent pop music. But there’s something just so ridiculous and sincere about it, I can’t resist it. There were groups with special names like “a band named David” and “2nd Chapter of Acts”. Godspell could probably be said to fall into this same category although it’s a high water mark. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” was Ocean’s only hit outside of Canada. It was originally recorded by Anne Murray and composed by “Snowbird” composer Gene MacLellan. Murray, being officially a country singer, is obviously under obligation to record a few gospel numbers.
#17: Danny Michel – “Feather, Fur & Fin”
Danny Michel is a beloved local singer/songwriter from Kitchener who I can only assume was named after the father and daughter on Full House. Actually, he’s older than that. He’s released some 10 albums which can be easily acquired on Bandcamp, Zunior.com or iTunes. Michel is just one of many great local musicians here it Kitchener-Waterloo. While we often search for quality in the blue chip rock stars, there’s plenty of gold to be found in that obscure café down the street.
#18: Joni Mitchell – “River”
Appropriately, this is a song about a Canadian in California, yearning for the winter of her childhood. It’s hardly a deep cut but it might just be a greatest piece of Canadian music ever. From Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece, Blue.
#19: The Diamonds – “Little Darlin’”
Now, there was this phenomenon in the 1950s where a black group or singer would record a song and it would be a hit among black audiences and then a white group or singer would record a vastly inferior version and have a huge international hit. See exhibit A: Pat Boone. There is one major exception to this rule of crappy white covers. That is The Diamonds’ version of “Little Darlin’” It was written by Maurice Williams who also wrote “Stay” and originally recorded by his group The Gladiolas. The Gladiolas version is great but there’s a certain “je ne sais quoi” about The Diamonds’ version. First rock ’n’ roll hit with a Latin beat.
Other songs that didn’t quite make the cut
Absolutely Free – “Beneath The Air”: Absolutely. (link)
Arcade Fire – “(Antichrist Television Blues)”: Bruce? (link)
Billy Talent – “Voices of Violence”: Punk your face off. (link)
Carla Bley & Paul Haines – “Rawalpindi Blues”: Poet extraordinaire and father of Metric’s Emily. (link)
La Bolduc – “Le petit sauvage du nord”: I love La Bolduc, does anyone else? (link)
Braids – “Miniskirt”: Take that. (link)
Les Cowboys Fringants – “Mon pays, suivi du Reel des Aristocrates”: Simply the Quebeckiest! (link)
Eric’s Trip – “New Love”: Rain and rock. (link)
Feist – “Inside and Out”: Supreme disco. (link)
Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland – “Promiscuous”: Bring that on? You know what I mean! (link)
Gowan – “A Criminal Mind”: Check out the cheesy music video! (link)
Grimes – “Oblivion”: Pitchfork’s best song of the decade. (link)
The Heavy Blinkers – “Silver Crown”: The Beach Boys are alive and well and living in Halifax. (link)
Junior Boys – “Banana Ripple”: An electronic epic. (link)
Lake of Stew – “Mary Margaret”: Assassination was never this fun!
Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”: That electric guitar! (link)
Local Rabbits – “Intro”: Funk‘eh’. (link)
Kate & Anna McGarrigle – “Kiss and Say Goodbye”: Anna composed “Heart Like a Wheel,” Kate co-composed Rufus and Martha Wainwright. (link)
A.C. Newman – “Miracle Drug”: Supreme power pop. (link)
Organized Rhyme – “Check the O.R.”: Tom Green’s origins. (link)
Peaches – “Fuck the Pain Away”: This song defies explanation. (link)
Bruno Pelletier – “The Age of the Cathedrals”: Victor Hugo rocks out. (link)
The Sadies – “Lay Down Your Arms”: Country-surf-rock. (link)
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet – “Having an Average Weekend”: Blame it on the kids in the hall. (link)
Alexander “Skip” Spence – “Books of Moses”: Mad genius. (link)
The Super Friendz – “Up And Running”: Halifax pop explosion. (link)
The Sweet Homewreckers – “Sweet Casualty”: From Peterborough, ON, one album and done. (link)
The Tragically Hip – “New Orleans is Sinking”: Hey man, thanks. (link)
Martha Wainwright – “Whither Must I Wander”: Read Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson is a genius! (link)
The Weeknd – “Twenty Eight”: Could Abel Tesfaye be Michael’s heir? (link)
Neil Young – “Walk On”: An optimistic song opening a bleak album. (link)
As often as you can, pay for music, support the musicians you love. I am certainly guilty of “liberating” music now and then but I’m trying to cut down. Support your local record stores, buy music there instead of iTunes or Amazon. And when the ridiculousness that is modern international copyright law prevents you from getting the music you want, steal it and buy a concert ticket with the money you would have spent.