The Complicatist : Climb Every Mountie

Some reasons not to sneer at the home of Celine Dion

by Gordon Campbell

Canada is so used to playing second fiddle, even its superlatives sound somewhat second rate. Like…it has the second biggest land mass of any country on earth. Plus there are Mounties, and the currency is commonly called the loonie. Canada also has a good deal in common with New Zealand in that both countries have developed an inferiority complex from living in the shadow of a bigger, brasher and far more successful neighbour. At the same time, both countries also have a superiority complex about their virtuous inferiority. Like New Zealanders, Canadians say ‘sorry’ a lot, and feel the gesture is often not appreciated.

Today though, we’re here to celebrate the fact that despite the existence of some evidence to the contrary, Canada is also one of the coolest places on earth. Home to great cities like Montreal, Vancouver and on a good day, Toronto. True, Canada was the birthplace of Celine Dion and William Shatner – but on the upside, there’s Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Plus it has great film-makers like Guy Maddin, great writers like Margaret Atwood, William Gibson and Alice Munro, and excellent cartoonists like Kate Beaton of Hark, a Vagrant! fame. No one needs mention the ice hockey.

Even more so than New Zealand, Canada puts a considerable amount of state funding behind its musicians which helps them to record, and to tour. Here’s a list of some great (fairly recent) Canadian music.

1. Arcade Fire : “We Used to Wait”
Anthems and the people who sing them – Springsteen, Bono etc – get a critical hammering these days, mainly because the hope they’re peddling seems so cheap. So far, Arcade Fire has managed to anchor its soaring aspirations in songs that are good enough to seal the deal, and their Auckland show in 2008 remains a high water mark for the Big Day Out. This new track is taken from their The Suburbs album due out this month. For old time’s sake, here’s also a link to the live version of ‘Keep The Car Running’ that Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and the gang did for the Austin City Limits show in 2007.

2. Tegan and Sara : “Turnpike Ghost”
Tegan Quin and Sara Quin are twins, born in 1980. Six albums down the track, their success has been built on a gruelling touring schedule, and their knack for writing sharply melodic songs with earnest, conversational lyrics. They remain resolutely uncool with the indie crowd – but each T & S album since So Jealous in 2004 has had its share of killer tracks, from that album’s “Where Does the Good Go” to a swag of cuts on their breakthrough 2007 album The Con – “Hop a Plane” “Burn Your Life Down” “Soil Soil” and the title track were all pretty wonderful. Last year’s album Sainthood had one certifiable keeper in “Someday.”

“Turnpike Ghost” was released in June. For once, the song was not written by either Quin but is a cover of a song by Steel Train, the New Jersey band who have been opening for Tegan and Sara on tour this year.

3. Drake – “Karaoke”
Toronto rapper Aubrey Drake Graham aka Drake has had the blessing of Li’l Wayne. Drake’s Thank Me Later debut album certainly has had its critics – far too much whining in the lyrics about the downsides of stardom, for one thing – but it did debut at number one on the Billboard charts in June, on its first week of release. Drake has pedigree, too. His father used to play drums for Jerry Lee Lewis, and one uncle is Larry Graham, the groundbreaking bass player for Sly and the Family Stone, while another uncle is Teenie Hodges – formerly the right hand man for Willie Mitchell during his golden days in the 1970s with Al Green, and more recently the leader of Cat Power’s soul band.

4. Schomberg Fair : “Drunkard’s Prayer” These three guys named themselves after an agricultural fair held annually near Toronto since 1850, and they draw heavily on punk and bluegrass sources to play fast, really loud gospel songs. Personally, I think Schomberg Fair would eat alive their much touted British equivalents, Mumford and Sons. This great version of “Drunkards Prayer” was recorded live in a record shop in New Brunswick.

5. Cancer Bats : “Sabotage”
Canada (and Toronto in particular) has always had a healthy hardcore scene, dating all the way back to bands like Teenage Head in the 1980s. In this video, the four members of the sprightly Toronto group Cancer Bats try – in a fashion that has clearly been inspired by Rhys Darby and Flight of the Conchords – to track down the Beastie Boys and rope them into this cover version of the BB oldie “Sabotage” with pretty amusing results. The Cancer Bats gig last year in Auckland was also reportedly very, very good.

6. United Steel Workers of Montreal : “Emile Bertrand “
This six piece alt/country/punk /bluegrass hybrid started out in Montreal as a bunch of buskers, but they’ve evolved into a terrific live act. The track I’ve chosen starts out as a celebration of an old time restaurant in Montreal, but it ends up as a salute to working stiffs everywhere. Some lovely vocals too, by Felicity Hamer.

7. Fucked Up : “Twice Born”
Fucked Up’s Chemistry of Common Life was something of a rarity – a hardcore album loved by people who normally hate hardcore. The disc not only won awards all over the known world, but it landed its hefty lead singer (and left wing activist) Damian Abraham aka Pink Eyes with a regular guest slot gig on Fox News, one of the strangest cultural mismatches of 2009. “Twice Born” is a killer track from the Chemistry album, and I’ve linked to two versions. The official video is here.

And for extras, here is the infamously destructive live version of “Twice Born” recorded in the men’s room at MTV.Watching the mosh pit trying to push through the doorway to get at the band is not recommended for anyone prone to feelings of claustrophobia.

8. Veda Hille : “Lucklucky
A couple of years ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made a terrific live recording of this song, with musician/theatre performer Veda Hille singing it solo, and playing piano. These days, we’re stuck with this slightly bombastic everything but the kitchen sink version (taken from Hille’s album This Riot Life) of the same remarkable song.

Basically, ‘Lucklucky’ is about how experience and memory get embedded in the city where you live…thereby turning the old hometown into a map to be read afresh, every day:

“There is the place you know
There is the place you don’t know
Curtain number 1, curtain number 1
(You are blind, blind, blind)
This is where I did this,
This is where I did that
It took 30 years to draw this map…
Now do you see
The city or the map of the city?
The city or your life in the city?”

I also like the fact Hille is so obviously pregnant in the video. Talk about what was, what is and what shall be…

9. Broken Social Scene – “World Sick”
Kevin Drew is, I suppose, the main unifying factor and – given his personality – the main dis-unifying factor in the Broken Social Scene collective. Love or hate him, it has been obvious that Drew and his cohorts are terrific songwriters and musicians, ever since their 2002 breakthrough album You Forgot It In People. Broken Social Scene played some great gigs in Auckland and Wellington a couple of years ago. The track I’ve chosen is “World Sick” from their latest album Forgiveness Rock Record.

And if you haven’t seen Drew’s sometime girlfriend and BSS bandmate Leslie Feist sing her “I,2,3,4” hit on Sesame Street, it is utterly adorable.

10. The Besnard Lakes – “Albatross”
When they surfaced in 2007, The Besnard Lakes were late arrivals on Montreal’s already much-hyped music scene. Yet their The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse album was pretty impressive, regardless – offering a series of massive, momentous/portentous pop songs built up by the band’s core members (Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas) from a foundation of beloved Brian Wilson-type vocal harmonies. “Devastation” was the lynchpin of the Dark Horse album and can be checked out here, but this is the new single “Albatross” from the upcoming album The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, due later this month.

11. Chad Vangaalen : “Willow Tree”
Chad Vangaalen, 32, comes from Calgary. After making a few lo-fi albums in his bedroom – “Clinically Dead” is a good track from that period – he gravitated to Sub Pop, and the music has gotten more expansive and experimental since the Soft Airplane album in 2007. Vangaalen also draws the terrific animation on many of his videos, and its worth checking out tracks like “Red Hot Drops” and “Rabid Pack of Lies” in particular. The track I’ve chosen is a live version of “Willow Tree.”

12. Wolf Parade : “I’ll Believe in Anything”
Even more so than Arcade Fire, it was Wolf Parade’s Apologies To The Queen Mary album that put the Montreal music scene on the map. The band has been an almost Biblically fertile part of the Canadian indie scene ever since. Wolf Parade supreme Spencer Krug has gone on to beget a more experimental band (Sunset Rubdown) and collaborate significantly with his former band Frog Eyes and with Swan Lake. Meanwhile, Dan Boeckner, the other leading WP figure, toured New Zealand last year with his own spinoff band Handsome Furs, behind their very successful Face Control album. Plus there are also significant family tree links to Dan Bejar of Destroyer and the New Pornographers. To complete the circle, Wolf Parade’s drummer also used to play with Arcade Fire.

The Wolf Parade mothership has just released its third album called Expo 86, but this is a personal favourite from the Queen Mary album. As someone once said, this is the score to flinging yourself ecstatically to pieces.

Plus here’s some hockey pictures to watch along with Handsome Furs “All I Want Is Everything” hit song, which manages to revitalize the old New Order’s war horse “Temptation” to extremely good effect.

13. Dan Mangan : ” Robots”
Again, it may be the Conchords influence, but a lot of singer songwriter stuff these days carries an air of faux sincerity and self parody. Vancouver-based 27 year old Dan Mangan has some terrific solo stuff available elsewhere on the Web, including a collaboration with Veda Hille – and this video is a pretty funny spoof of those heavily stylized The Warriors gang rumbles. Arguably, only a Canadian could have made something that was quite this deliberately dorky:

Finally, the striking visual treatment given to Mangan’s more recent “Road Regrets” track also makes it well worth checking out.