Perhaps all the good musicians left the US when Bush became President, or perhaps the rhythmic patterns of hockey pucks repeatedly caroming off the boards inspire musical thinking…but for whatever reason, the last several years have witnessed a seemingly insurmountable flow of talent from our northern neighbors (that would be Canada for those of you who failed geography class). Acts such as the New Pornographers, Destroyer, the Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Wolf Eyes, Frog Parade
, and Sufjan “Michigan Is Not Part of Canada You Dope” Stevens have made clear to listeners outside of their native land that there’s more to Canadian music than Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Celine Dion.
Something else: there’s often something just a little off, just a bit strange, in the best Canadian acts. All of the Canadian acts mentioned above* tend to look at things a bit askew and present them that way as well. Recently I picked up CDs by two exemplary Canadian viewers-askew, and it struck me that at least in some respects, they made a good contrasting set of songs.
I recently picked up Jane Siberry’s first, self-titled album on CD. I’d had the music on a ratty old cassette, but hadn’t listened to it for years, remembering it as being a bit too twee. Well, it probably is that – but I think part of that is a peculiar distaste people have for lightness, for joy, even though I’d argue it’s a lot harder to effectively (and non-sappily) convey those sorts of feelings than to do doom and gloom. I really like the synth part on “The Sky Is So Blue,” and the way the rhythms shift, and Siberry’s somewhat breathless delivery of the verses. More ambiguously, there’s “The Mystery at Ogwen’s Farm“: seems an odd girl was talking to Bessie, and Bessie somehow…just…disappeared. Good thing for Bessie, it seems.
By contrast, a few months ago, Carl Wilson (a/k/a Zoilus), guesting at the estimable mp3 blog Said the Gramophone, posted “Night Falls” by another Canadian musician, Kathleen Yearwood…and I was so impressed I ordered the CD it was on within a day of hearing the track. What grabbed me was the shift in moods of the song, and its intensity. glenn mcdonald (in his late column “The War Against Silence“) reviewed that CD, Book of Hate – and he aptly describes the way nearly every track upsets the preconceptions set up by the previous tracks. The opening track, “Peggy Gordon,” presents Yearwood at nearly her most straightforward and folkish…but the arrangement of the track is almost baroque, sort of if Fairport Convention had hired Gentle Giant to arrange a song.
A final note: it fascinates me that both of these artists are, to an audible degree, influenced by something best described as “folk music”…although in both cases (and to very different ends), they move far beyond a merely genre-specific exercise (and far beyond the stereotype of sweater-wearing, Starbucks-patronizing NPR listeners as implied audience). Although neither of these recordings is new (Siberry’s is from 1981, Yearwood’s was recorded in 1992), the ongoing resonance of some aspects of folk with people aren’t necessarily buying traditional folk music is intriguing, and something I’ve been meaning to explore further. There’s something to the rootedness of the form that appeals…but it’s not the often too-safe rootedness that (perhaps) appeals to that stereotypical audience. There’s also no purism: if these artists want to throw in a programmed synth rhythm or a trombone solo or write about gay pornographers, they go ahead and do so.
* Yes, I know: Wolf Eyes isn’t Canadian. And as far as I know, there’s not really a band called Frog Parade. I get easily confused with all those Wolf bands out there.
late edit: More Canadiana…The Bejar Family Circus!