I’ll admit, I didn’t have to dive to deep for this one. I just picked it up on vinyl because I thought I might have actually been at this concert. Turns out it was recorded a year after the show I was at, but what the hell, right?
Recorded on February 20th, 2014, Live at Massey Hall is yet another example of why Blue Rodeo is still strong as it enters its third decade. My first grown-up concert was to see Blue Rodeo at Massey Hall back in December of 1989, and I spent much of the ’90s seeing them two or three times a year at such venues as The Ontario Place Forum, The Horseshoe Tavern, and many other indoor and outdoor venues across the GTA and beyond. The 2013 show I went to was the first time I’d seen the band live in over a decade and, if anything, the band has only gotten better in the ensuing years.
Trying to pin down any stand-out tracks on Live at Massey Hall is impossible for me. All the tracks on all four sides of this vinyl are stone solid, with Cuddy, Keelor and the gang not missing a single beat or hitting one sour note. “Practised ease” is the best phrase I can come up with for the vibe that permeates this album. Playing together with no studio edits, autotune or multi-track trickery, Blue Rodeo has not just put out one of the best live albums in my collection, but one of the best, period. This album is both a gift to long-time fans as well as a great introduction to this Canadian institution.
But I’m not quite ready to completely give up on blogging music reviews, so the (A)DAR will be reborn as Dave’s Disc Dive, occasional music reviews that get thrown up whenever the heck I feel like it. Stay tuned.
It’s pretty obvious that the (Almost) Daily Album Review ain’t anything close to what it was named. It turns out that most days, once the work is done and I’ve got the turntable spinning, the last thing I want to do is stare into the computer screen again.
Seemed like a good idea at the time…
I hate Moist. That’s what I said when I was handed this album back in 1999 and told to write a review. I couldn’t stand songs like “Push,” “Silver” and “Machine Punch Through” that I felt were awful, and made worse by the fact that local radio stations played the crap out of them day in and day out. I didn’t even want to hear Mercedes 5 and Dime, but nobody else wanted to write that review either. Resigning myself to the fact that the job had fallen to me, I figured I would at least get a chance to rant in print about how much I f***ing hated Moist.
Dang it anyway, but I didn’t even get the chance to do that.
At some point when I wasn’t looking, Most turned into a band that put out an amazing album. Mercedes 5 and Dime is still one of the go-tos in my collection. Right from the Hammond organ intro of the opening track “Underground” through “Breathe” (with guitar work that sounds suspiciously like Radiohead’s “Creep” in parts) and the sing-along anthem “Mandolin,” Mercedes 5 and Dime is groovy and melodic, showcasing a band that had reached some level of maturity while still managing to sound fresh even to this day. However much lead singer David Usher paid the vocal coach that elevated him from grunge whiner to rock crooner, it wasn’t enough.
And I so much wanted to hate it…
Even when I’m not reviewing 20-year-old albums, I’m behind the times. Pagans in Vegas is the 2015 release by Metric, and even though the band has been putting out albums since the turn of the century, this is the first Metric record I’ve actually sat down and listened to.
And man, have I been missing out. Since getting my first taste of Pagans in Vegas at a friend’s birthday party, it’s been in fairly regular rotation in my phone’s media player. In another example of how behind the times I truly am, it’s there due in no small part to the fact that it sounds like something born of the 1980s. The intro to “Fortunes” sounds like a modern take on early Depeche Mode; “Cascades” might be a lost Trans-X track; “For Kicks” could have been lifted off a mid-’80s New Order B-side; and yeah, Underworld’s “Born Slippy” came out in the ’90s, but there’s no denying that Metric’s “Celebrate” shares some of that song’s DNA.
Picking stand-out tracks from a solid record like this is tough, but I do have some favourites. The electronic sounds of “The Shade” perfectly cradle Emily Haines’ voice as her melody floats like a falling leaf. The song makes a pretty darn good ringtone, too.
The one that really does it for me on Pagans in Vegas, though is “Other Side.” It’s got that perfect ’80s electronic music sound, bandmate James Shaw’s haunting vocals. Combine that with lyrics like:
Fools may rise – all fall in their time
Burning with the forest fires
And all we want is to feel like all we got
Didn’t cost us everything
Even if we never win
And I’m haunted. If Pagans in Vegas is indicative of the quality of music this band has been putting out for a decade and a half, I definitely need to take some time to plumb the depths of Metric’s back catalogue.
This is one of the forgotten treasures of the mid-1990s Toronto music scene. For me, at a time when the ubiquitous, droning introspection of grunge was starting to degenerate into indistinguishable white noise, Strawman was a bucket of cold hard-rock water in the face.
Rather than go on and on about this album, I’ll let 1995 Me share with you the article I wrote for The Spill Magazine in March of that year…
With hard-driving, tribal drums and guitars that grind with grunge energy and sing with heavy-metal power, why is it that their audiences sit in their seats transfixed like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming Buick? The answer lies in the fact that Strawman is ore than “just” a band; they are the voice of an artists’ collective that incorporates visual artists, videographers, poets and choreographers. It is this combined energy that creates a multimedia show that is nothing less than shocking
Another Strawman surprise is the fact that this band, so new on the local scene, is as tight as a band that has spent a lifetime together. It comes as no surprise at all when you consider how much work has gone into creating the Strawman experience. Al McMullan, one of the band’s key songwriters and the man who plays keyboards on the album (chances are you’ll never see him on stage) explains that the work was necessary because of the nature of the show.
“Think about having an active video show along with the other aspects of the band,” Al says. “If you don’t have a strong band at the crux of it, it just looks like a crutch. It looks like you’re lame and you have that there so people don’t notice you’re lame. That was the last thing in the world we wanted, so we rehearsed this show really hard. We knew in terms of timing with the videos and everything else, we’d have to rehearse dead. We rehearsed dead for a year.”
“There are certain things that I would love to be able to go and see a band do,” adds John Hitzroth, Strawman’s guitarist and second principle songwriter. “Turn that around, and it’s what I should be doing. We thought it would be really cool to see a band that did all these things with A/V and do a killer show that wasn’t boring, a band with some energy happening in the show and in the material itself. It had to be something that would have to grab me if I heard it on a record.
Al talks about the documentary that was made about them last year, quoting the line that the band lives by. “If we’re on the road touring and the truck that carries our video screens goes off the road… too bad. We’ll have to get Canadian Tire to get the truck out, but the band can pull into any town, just do a set, and still blow people away.”
The strategy has worked well for the band so far. When Strawman got some radio airplay on Q107 recently, they had the highest phone-in rate of any indie band in recent memory. College radio has fallen in love with Strawman, and their popularity on the East Coast is better than anyone could have predicted. The key to their acceptance is simple: Strawman is something that’s just a little bit different. Some folks might think that would make things tough finding favour in today’s music market. “The prevailing animal is a low-fi or a punk/pop thing,” says Al. “Not to denigrate that at all. Some of my favourite bands are people practicing that, but that’s not what we are. Some of the trepidation that we had about being accepted hasn’t been a worry.”
There is one worry in the Strawman camp these days. Anyone who has spent any time in the downtown core has seen posters everywhere, promoting their North By Northeast appearance, their HMV in-store performance, the release of the video, whatever. It seems the local authorities have caught up with Strawman, charging them with “abandoning material that could become litter.” Although the band admits that they put posters up, the charge will be fought due to the wording of the by-law.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Al states. “It not only affects us and every indie band out there, but it affects the movie and beer companies, right down to the little girl that puts up a poster for her missing cat.”
Whatever the outcome of Strawman’s day in court, it can’t pull the band’s name out of people’s minds. With or without the benefit of a poster stuck to every mailbox on Queen Street, Strawman cannot be ignored.
For the record, I have no recollection of how Strawman fared against by-law enforcement. But hey, rock ‘n’ roll!
Time to dive into one of my guiltiest guilty pleasures of all time. Hot Show is a dance-pop concept album documenting the journey of two cartoon characters (Simon, a vaguely Dudley Moore-esque Brit, and his could-be-Swedish-maybe blond bruiser buddy, Milo) as they embark on the search for true love.
One of the things that makes this album so much more appealing to me than most of the dance-pop of the ’90s (or just about any other era) is the fact that this album does not take itself too seriously. At all. These are cartoon characters exploring cartoony versions of love and longing. The narcissism and possessiveness that I find permeates the lyrics of many songs in this genre are mercifully absent from Hot Show. What’s left are catchy tunes that make me want to clap and hum along; the textbook fun album.