Thursday, September 22, 2011

Life is a Highway is paved with Canadian gold from the '90s

The creators of television specials on Canadian music in the '60s, '70s and '80s are back again with Life is a Highway, a two-part look at the Canuck scene of the '90s.

The hour-long first episode aired last week and, even though it opened with a section on Bryan Adams, I still enjoyed it. I especially appreciated coverage of Spirit of the West, Rawlins Cross, Sloan, Thrush Hermit, Doughboys, Odds, Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous and Rheostatics. Some of these groups experienced substantial commercial success. All of them were deserving of it.

I learned that Brad Roberts came up with the chorus and title of the Crash Test Dummies hit "Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm" because he couldn't think of words to use in its place, while the episode also highlighted the contributions of the likes of kd lang, Tom Cochrane, The Rankin Family, Leahy, Great Big Sea, Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, La Bottine Souriante and Loreena McKennitt.

In addition to music from and interviews with these artists, the show also revealed the thoughts of other musicians and music industry representatives on their efforts to raise the temperature of the Canadian music climate, including Michael Kaeshammer, Ian D'Sa, Sam Roberts, Brendan Canning and managers Jake Gold, Jeff Rogers, Chip Sutherland and Mike Campbell.

Part two airs tonight on CBC's main network at 8 p.m. and will be repeated Saturday night on CBC News Net. A big part of its focus is on a quartet of women who became international superstars in the '90s: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette. Another Canadian female who became big at home but didn't quite reach such lofty heights elsewhere, Jann Arden, also gets her props.

Ron Sexsmith represents the male singer/songwriters, while Our Lady Peace, Blue Rodeo, The Tea Party and Big Sugar are among the primary rock bands. Bran Van 3000's eclectic approach gets more attention than most people who think of it as a one-hit wonder through "Drinking in L.A." might expect. I was especially pleased to see the groundbreaking Dream Warriors spotlighted, while Snow, Rascalz and Bass Is Base show the eclecticism of Canada's hip-hop community.

Like in hour one, there are lots of live performance and video clips interspersed with interviews with some of the aforementioned artists as well as Choclair, Luc Plamondon, David Foster, Maestro, Dallas Good and manager Terry McBride.

I entered the music industry in 1991 and edited its trade magazines throughout the decade until 2004, so Life is a Highway's content is very familiar to me and isn't as informative as the earlier decade retrospectives. But there's probably material that's revelatory to more casual music fans, and the shows are put together well.

Producer, writer, researcher and interviewer Nicholas Jennings deserves a breather. But after that well-earned rest, it's time to get on to a show on the 00s.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Arcade Fire deserved the 2011 Polaris Music Prize

The 2011 Polaris Music Prize grand jury made the right choice in awarding a $30,000 cheque to Arcade Fire and naming The Suburbs the best Canadian album of the year on Monday night.

I was one of the 200-or-so jurors who helped select the short list of 10 albums, but my role wasn't really that large. I hear that I was one of just three Polaris voters not to have any of the five choices marked on the initial ballot make the long list of 40 contenders. But two of my choices from those 40 made the final 10, led by The Suburbs.

It was fourth on my ballot but had a clear lead over my fifth and last choice, Ron Sexsmith's Long Player Late Boomer. Timber Timbre's Creep On Creepin' On was probably my third  pick, even though I didn't vote for it.

Monday's show, held at Toronto's Concert Hall in the Masonic Temple and hosted by CBC Radio 3's Grant Lawrence and MuchMusic's Damian Abraham (who won the Polaris two years ago as the lead singer for Fucked Up), featured performances from six of the 10 finalists.

Sexsmith was first up and impressed with a great mid-tempo pop song, "Believe It When I See It," before finishing with "Everytime I Follow."

Austra's performance was dramatic and theatrical, but the whole thing was too precious for my tastes.

The first impression I got of Montreal rock band Galaxie was that it reminded me a bit of a francophone Big Sugar. Singer/guitarist Olivier Langevin is a very good player, and his riffing made Galaxie the hardest rocking outfit of the night.

Timber Timbre may have received the biggest audience response for its two songs, and deservingly so. The trio was fleshed out with a small string section, and the combination of singer/guitarist Taylor Kirk's deep voice and the dark and foreboding music coming from him and his bandmates during "Bad Ritual/Obelisk" and the album's title track had me thinking about Nick Cave.

Braids' Native Speaker was a favourite on Canadian campus radio, and I can see why, but the group's dependence on effects and singer/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston's sometimes high-pitched voice failed to hold me in thrall.

I appreciate Hey Rosetta!, but I'm not as committed to the St. John's, Nfld. group as others I know. Still, the band's performance of "Bricks" and "Yer Spring" ended the performances on solid ground.

Destroyer, The Weeknd, Colin Stetson and Arcade Fire didn't perform, but the Polaris-winning combo's Win Butler, Jeremy Gara and Richard Reed Parry flew in after headlining the Austin City Limits Festival the night before to accept the accolades and their large novelty cheque.

With only six of 10 acts playing, I can't understand why the show stretched out beyond three hours. And the long waits between action on the stage were made worse for those of us in the balcony, as the pads that were there in past years were nowhere to be found and sitting on cold concrete for that long doesn't really equate with the word gala.

But, unlike in past years when there were heated discussions on the merits of the winner at the post-gala party at The Drake Hotel, most people seemed satisfied with The Suburbs taking the prize. And that's the way it should have been.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Jim Jones Revued

Jim Jones Revued
Friends who'd seen England's Jim Jones Revue at the in Austin and New York City, and were instrumental in getting the group to come to Toronto, promised that Tuesday night's show at the Horseshoe Tavern would be one of the best shows I'd see this year.

The group attracted more than 300 people, which was a lot more than was originally expected — and probably somewhat attributable to last week's appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. While I certainly enjoyed the quintet, it fell a bit short of being the amazing experience I'd been primed for.

The Jim Jones Revue takes elements of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, The Rolling Stones, The Faces, The Mooney Suzuki, The Sonics and Creedence Clearwater Revival and then turns up the volume and adds punk enthusiasm and aggression to a blended core of rock and roll, soul, blues and rockabilly. The band members were all dressed in black, making them look as dangerous as they sounded.

Jones, the former singer of late '80s garage/psych rock revivalists Thee Hypnotics, fronts his current band with and without a guitar. He's joined by ace guitarist Rupert Orton and a solid rhythm section of Gavin Jay and Nick Jones, but it's boogie-woogie pianist Henri Herbert who really helps make The Jim Jones Revue stand out. His vintage sound is straight from the '50s and sounds refreshing in this age of electronic gimmickry.

When Jones isn't using his roughly hewn voice to belt out a fast-paced repertoire of songs, he's pulling out the old cliche of pitting cities against each other to try and get a bigger audience reaction. He encourages crowd participation — with profanity — but I'd rather clap and sing along when I feel like it without instructions.

The band brought its own sound man, but what came off the stage was a bit muddy at times and so loud that it drove a few customers out the door. I was fine with earplugs, but it probably wouldn't hurt to turn things down a bit.

And it would help to have a few more top-level songs. The Jim Jones Revue's second album, Burning Down Your House, was released in North America last month. But the band's reputation has been built on its incendiary concerts, not on its songwriting.

A Jim Jones Revue performance is a great way to spend an hour. Whether the band can grow beyond that artistically remains to be seen, but it already has an energetic head start on most other combos on the club circuit these days — and sometimes that's enough to keep both the musicians and their fans happy.