Sunday, August 01, 2004

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: HIP IS HIP

(I knew I'd forgotten something ... here's Friday's Tuneup)

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 30, 2004

The Tragically Hip is one of those bands that’s consistently strong, during their 20-year history. With their muscular guitar attack and the passionate vocals of Gordon Downie -- whose voice suggests Michael Stipe with more testosterone -- these Canadian road warriors virtually always satisfy.

The Hip’s new album, In Between Evolution, is a dark but inspirational work, if not quite their best. That honor belongs to Day For Night, their 1995 effort.

No song on the new one quite matches "Nautical Disaster" from Day For Night, a terrifying you-are-there account of a nightmare. But surprisingly the one on the new CD that comes closest has a seemingly light-hearted title. "Gus The Polar Bear From Central Park."

With its distorted guitar hook and plodding beat, Downie seemingly gets into the mind of a zoo animal to create an offbeat treatise on isolation and paranoia.

"What’s troubling Gus overhearing conversations/that it’s because your either them or me/when it’s either them or it’s us anything that moves and/everything you see is something to kill and eat."

The idea that the world has turned into a colder, harsher place permeates this album. There’s the ominous song "Meanstreak" creates the image of a town invaded by "strangers": ""The sssh sound of their boots/on the tops of the grass/as their hay wagon/rolled past …"

War images pop up everywhere. "Makeshift," built around what sounds like a long-lost Bachman Turner Overdrive riff, starts out "You do the combat math, I’m the war artist/You can’t take your shots back, I have to watch them miss."

"If New Orleans Is Beat" has one of the prettiest melodies the Hip have ever played, but keeps with the basic theme of a world turned wrong. "No one will give you a thing these days/They’d rather kill it or throw it away/you don’t `do’ dark American streets so/if New Orleans is beat … where’s that leave you and me?"

According to Downie, the macho, jingoistic hot-new-country star Toby Keith inspired "It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night."

"He said `We are what we lack’/and this guy’s the autodidact/Stares in to the glare of them TV lights/It can’t be Nashville every night."

The obliqueness of the words combined with the passion of the band’s playing create a foreboding mood that’s hard to shake.

More Canadian cool:

The Slow Wonder by A.C. Newman.
Last year we knew him as "Carl" Newman, one of the front people -- along with Neko Case and Dan Bejar -- of The New Pornographers, those quirky and infectious rock/posters from Vancouver. (For those keeping track, their album Electric Version topped my Top 10 list last year.)

Newman’s first solo album sounds a lot what you’d imagine the third New Pornographers CD will be. Sure you miss sweet Neko’s singing, but most the other "pornographic" elements are here: snappy, hum-able melodies and addictive hooks that stick to your innards, simple guitar-based arrangements, and Newman’s rubbery voice that often slips into falsetto. There’s not a song here that wouldn’t have fit in on Electric Version.

Like the Pornographers, Newman’s album already is earning him comparisons to The Kinks, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson. I’ll add a couple of my own -- Badfinger and The Replacement’s Paul Westerberg, especially his early solo work. And the last song, "35 in the Shade" with its relentless drumbeat might remind you of The Who’s "Armenia City in the Sky."

Though The Slow Wonder is consistently satisfying, the strongest two songs are right at the beginning of the CD.

The opening song "Miracle Drug" starts out with a drum beat that might make you think you put on the Wild Tchoupitoulas CD by mistake. But when the guitars come in, and especially when Newman’s voice comes in a few seconds later, you know it’s no Mardi Gras. In a rushed, near frantic voice Newman sings, "He was tied to the bed with a miracle drug in one hand/In the other a great lost novel that, I understand, was returned with a stamp that said 'Thank you for your interest, young man.’ "

From that crazed image of rejection, suicide and craziness, Newman gives us one of his prettiest songs to date, "Drink to Me, Babe Then," a wistful song of love. The melody is sad as an acoustic guitar strums prominently (a snakey slide guitar waiting until the refrain.) The whistling solo in the middle of the song (a call-and-response with a subdued wah-wah guitar) brings an almost vaudeville or British music hall feel.

With or without the Pornographers, Newman is going to be a musical force to watch.

Also Noted:

Together We’re Heavy By The Polyphonic Spree. The robes are back. But is this a good thing?

I was initially fascinated by this group of 20-plus Texans in their shall-we-gather-at-the-river robes that made you wonder whether this was the product of some bizarre love cult, a group whose first CD, The Beginning Stages of The Polyphonic Spree, inspired about two thirds of the critics who reviewed it -- including me -- to mention Up With People.

Yes, I was smitten by that album, especially the song "Follow the Day," which also captured the imaginations of Volkswagen, who used it on an t.v. commercial and the makers of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who put it on their soundtrack.

But while I compared the first album to The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, this time out the sound is closer to bad Electric Light Orchestra and stale Moody Blues, even with former Pere Ubu member Eric Drew Feldman helping out on production.

O.K., I admit, I'm grudgingly fond of the self-help hymn "Two Thousand Places." But not much else here makes me want to put on a robe and witness for the Spree.

Maybe next album they’ll change their style to a ’70s revival band and call themselves "The Polyester Spree."

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