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Friday, June 24, 2016

My love of the Tragically Hip, and my review of the new album Man Machine Poem

This has been a Tragically Hip-centric blog for the last few weeks, and will remain so for at least one more post--because on June 17 the Hip released their 13th album, Man Machine Poem. Naturally, I feel compelled to write about it.

I don't know if I've ever adequately explained how much I love this band, or how baffled I am that they never made a dent outside of Canada. It's a subject for another blog post to theorize as to why the Hip have never penetrated the States or the rest of the world--but frankly it's a subject that most fans of the band, and the band themselves, are tired of discussing.

Though I'd heard of the Hip going as far back as the late '80s/early '90s, and was completely enraptured by Sarah Polley's gorgeous cover of "Courage" on the Sweet Hereafter soundtrack in 1997. (I liked it so much, in fact, that I bought the CD). It wasn't until early 2006, when I borrowed their hits collection Yer Favourites from the library, that I was irrevocably hooked to the band. (I checked out Wilco's A Ghost is Born at the same time and was fully prepared to love that album and not be moved by the Hip. The complete opposite happened).

I distinctly remember the moment when the Hip clicked with me. I was driving from my (then) house in Portland, Michigan to my job at the Mason library. I had Yer Favourites playing on the car CD player--I think at this point I was on day two of my item checkout period--and the song "At the Hundredth Meridian" came on. "Hundredth Meridian" is a pile-driving rocker wherein Gord Downie paints a picture of the raw, untamed, sometimes bleak landscape of the Canadian prairie. After describing "the hundredth meridian/where the Great Plains begin," Downie pleads to an unnamed person or figure, "If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me/If they bury me someplace I don't want to be/You'll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously/Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees/Whispers of disease and acts of enormity/And lower me slowly and sadly and properly/Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy." Where do I start with this lyric? I envision the narrator as an urban dweller who has a love and respect for the wide open grandeur of the Great Plains, and simply wants to be returned to nature when he dies, not trapped in polluted, confined artificiality of the city with its "garbage bag trees." Of course, the real kicker for me is Ry Cooder as eulogist.

It wasn't just the lyrics that grabbed me, it was "Hundredth Meridian"'s raw and aggressive music that perfectly matched the words that Gord Downie was singing/shouting/pleading/intoning. So maybe it was a matter of being the right song at the right moment in time that convinced me then and there that I'd just heard what might be one of the greatest rock bands in the world--and why the hell did it take me so long to discover these guys, and why the hell didn't everybody else in the world understand this fundamental truth?

Fast forward ten years. I own essentially every recorded product the Tragically Hip have commercially released, have seen them live twice, and regard them with even more esteem now than I did in 2006.

And now on to the new album Man Machine Poem:

First impressions are always pretty much worthless when it comes to Tragically Hip albums. But with the knowledge that, due to Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer diagnosis, this is likely the Hip's swan song, the album has built-in poignancy that may immediately color impressions.

Still, as any Hip fan will tell you, one's relationship with any of the band's records evolves over time. One of the reasons the Hip have never reached a wider audience is that, generally speaking, their music isn't always immediately accessible.

Man Machine Poem takes its name from a song by the same name from the Hip's previous album, Now For Plan A. I'm still trying to understand the significance of this, and I'm not sure if I ever will.

In any case, the album is book ended by the songs "Man" and "Machine." Both songs are companion pieces with similar, equally impenetrable lyrics. "Man" opens with a garbled, squiggly blast of sound that could be the haywire voice of a "machine" more than a "man." Or is it an interstellar transmission? Perhaps Gord Downie is commenting on how "the singularity is near" and it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the difference between man and machine? Who knows?

On the first few listens, Man Machine Poem strikes me as both the most subdued record of the Hip's career and their most musically adventurous since at least 2000's Music @ Work. "Man" in particular would not be out of place on a Radiohead album. For a band like the Hip, which has never been excessively experimental in the past, this is saying something.

"In a World Possessed By the Human Mind," the first single off the album, is the closest to "classic Hip" with its alternatingly jangly, melodic, and slashing guitar work along with Downie's uniquely off-kilter vocal phrasing.

By and large, Man Machine Poem is meditative, exemplified by songs such as "In Sarnia," "What Blue," and the dark, moody Day For Night-ish "Hot Mic."

As a mid-Michiganian, the gateway to Canada for me is Sarnia. Whenever we drive to Canada, we cross the Blue Water Bridge and enter this city across the St. Clair River from Port Huron. Naturally, when I saw the Hip had a song with Sarnia in the title, I was intrigued. Like almost every song Gord Downie has ever written, the lyrics defy easy interpretation. But the key line of "In Sarnia" is "Sarnia, you're on my mind." I choose to view the song as a tribute to the city...or is it? But with a mercurial lyricist like Gord Downie, it's impossible to tell for sure. Sarnia could easily be a metaphor for a woman or some other elusive love interest.

Drummer Johnny Fay's playing on this album is as inventive and intricate as I've ever heard, and shines on the rollicking "Here in the Dark" and the album closer "Machine."

If I have one major criticism of the album thus far, it's that Gord Downie's vocals are buried in the mix. This is disappointing because Man Machine Poem is most likely his final musical testament. I'd like to more clearly hear what he has to say.

Besides the idiosyncratic vocals of Downie, the Hip's most distinguishable feature is the duo of rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois and lead guitarist Rob Baker. Befitting the quieter nature of the record, there are no guitar pyrotechnics here. Instead, Langlois and Baker color the songs with more subtlety, from the finger-picking and gentle strumming on the elegiac "Ocean Next" to the fore mentioned melodic licks of "In a World Possessed By the Human Mind."

Those are my initial impressions of the album. I'm certainly not the most unbiased reviewer, so read my commentary with that in mind. I like Man Machine Poem, and I'm sure my feelings for the album will evolve over time. The days of fiery rockers like "Blow at High Dough" and "Little Bones" are long gone. This is the work of a veteran band reaching the finish line with a little extra spring in its step and its head held high.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My two-bit presidential opinions

It looks like Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic Party's candidacy for president.
I've been a Bernie Sanders supporter essentially since he entered the race, and I will keep my Bernie car magnet on the back of my minivan until he officially concedes. However, I am not one of those "Bernie bros" who we continually hear about in the media. (I have yet to actually encounter one of these alleged "Bernie bros," but that's another story). I've been mulling over my options for some time now, and my feeling is that it is in my and everyone's best interests to vote for Clinton in November.

Now, I know that Clinton is not a perfect candidate. She is, at best, a moderate Democrat and has plenty of baggage. I hope that if Sanders remains in the race until the Democratic convention, he can at least influence the party platform and get more progressive policies instituted.
And then there's Trump.

The Donald is quite possibly the worst (allegedly) mainstream presidential candidate of my lifetime. I probably don't need to go into detail about why he is so despicable. Just watch or read the news any day of he week to learn about Trump's latest insulting, racist comment or sexist remark. I cannot fathom this man as President of the United States and leader of the free world.

I'd love for once to be able to vote for a person I believed in for president; someone I actually liked. (I actually DID do this when I voted for Obama, but it seems that more often than not I am voting against someone rather than for someone).

I'd love to vote for Bernie Sanders as a write-in, or for Jill Stein of the Green Party. It's not that I hate Hillary Clinton, it's just that she is far too mainstream and corporate for my tastes. But the stakes are too high in this election to waste my vote on a third party candidate who has no prayer of winning.
So, for now, I am biting the bullet and backing Hillary Clinton in November.

But, I just may change my mind again between now and November, so stay tuned if you care.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Tragically Hip "Up to Here" (1989) review

(The second in my series of Tragically Hip album overviews, in which I investigate the discography of this criminally undervalued Canadian band).

The Tragically Hip's debut long player, Up to Here, is a considerable improvement over their tentative eponymous EP. The band was paired with experienced and respected studio vet Don Smith, fresh off of engineering U2's blockbuster Rattle and Hum, the Traveling Wilbury's successful first album, and Keith Richards' debut solo album, Talk is Cheap. With Smith in the producer's chair, and the recording sessions at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios, the Hip's sound is punchier and more assertive than on their 1987 EP.

But it wasn't just Don Smith or the recording studio that made a difference in the Tragically Hip's sound, Gord Downie and company's songwriting had improved exponentially in the intervening two years. Anthemic tunes like "Blow at High Dough" and "New Orleans is Sinking" were immediately embraced by fans and became consistent concert staples for the rest of the band's career.

Besides Gord Downie's distinctive vocals and lyrics, a major key to the Hip's sound is the interweaving guitar work of Rob Baker and Paul Langlois. The Baker/Langlois attack is unleashed immediately on the swaggering "Blow at High Dough." "They shot a movie once/In my hometown/everybody was in it/from miles around," so begins Downie's narrative, which after that fairly straight-forward opening, ventures into more impressionistic territory. Is the song about a porn film? Or is it about something else? The only one who really knows is Gord Downie. Whatever the song is about, it rocks hard, dude!

The next two songs on Up to Here, "I Believe in You" and "New Orleans is Sinking," are rock and blooze workouts. The kind that the Hip spent years tearing through at the sweaty Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and numerous other bars across the Canadian provinces.

The Hip slow it down for the dark, harrowing storytelling of "38 Years Old." With barely more than acoustic guitar accompaniment, Downie relates the story of "Michael", one of twelve men who escape from the Millhaven Institution--referred to as "Millhaven Maximum Security" in the song--in Bath, Ontario. (The song is loosely based on real events). After his escape, Michael returns to his childhood home and has a brief reunion with his family before the house is surrounded by police and he is taken back to prison. This capsule description is selling the song short. It's among the most linear and direct songs that Downie has ever written, and is superb in its poignancy and its small details ("same pattern on the table/same clock on the wall/Been one seat empty eighteen years in all" and the pointed description of Michael's life: "He's 38 years old/Never kissed a girl") What makes Michael's story even more moving is that, as told in the song, he has been imprisoned for a crime that seems a justifiable action.

"She Didn't Know" is heartland rock with more dark subject matter, and "Boots or Hearts" is the Hip doing their best Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Women" impression. (“She Didn’t Know” ia about a woman at her wit’s end in an abusive relationship, while "Boots or Hearts" is a more lighthearted and amusing look at a relationship going down the drain).  On this album and to a lesser extent on its follow-up, 1991's Road Apples, the band wears its love for the Stones brightly and boldly on its collective shoulder. There's nothing wrong with loving the Stones. If you're gonna emulate anyone, you could  do worse than the Stones. With the sympatico guitar interplay of Baker and Langlois, the Tragically Hip are more than equipped for it.

At this point in their career, the Hip were still trying to find their sound, and were not quite capable of filling an album with great material. Up to Here is frontloaded, with the best songs in the LP's first half. Though songs like the rollicking "Everytime You Go" and "When the Weight Comes Down" are pleasant enough, they are filler. To the band's credit, just when it appears that the album is about to blandly stagger to a dull ending, Downie and company pull out the elegiac, R.E.M.-ish jangle folk pop of "Another Midnight" before concluding with the low-key and dark "Opiated."

Up to Here is a significant step up from the Tragically Hip's debut EP, but is still somewhat inconsistent and often derivative. Still, the songwriting and musicianship are strong, but would become even better on the next album, Road Apples.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Up To Here...and an old violin

I am currently slavishly laboring on a review of the Tragically Hip's debut full-length Up To Here, because I know my dear readers are dying to immerse themselves in my high-minded opinion of this obscure album by this "only known in Canada" band.

So anyway, keep your eyes peeled for that. I hope to have it up sometime this week.

In other news, our kids are wrapping up their school years, which means spring orchestra concerts.
I've always been a fairly emotional sort, but these concerts really turn on my tear faucet. I do my best to cover it up, but it's hard. These kids (not just my kids but all of the kids) are so damned good and they work so hard at perfecting their musical skills.

I'm doubly stirred by the fact my older son is playing my grandfather's old violin. After my grandpa died in 1963, the violin was silenced. I inherited it in the mid-1990s. Though I had it reconditioned to make it playable again, I never did pick it up myself. At best, I bought some time for the violin. With a minimum of tweaking, the violin was ready for my son to play it after he'd outgrown his smaller rental violin. He's been playing his great granddad's [provenance unknown] violin for about four years now. After four decades of silence, this violin is making music again.

Maybe you can understand why I get misty during these concerts.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Trouble Boys

Last night, I finally finished Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys, his excellent and incredibly detailed biography of the Replacements.

First of all, I always knew the Replacements were NOT saints, but I had no idea the extent of their bad boy mayhem. Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, Paul Westerberg, and Chris Mars all drank like fish. In fact, it seems that for about a decade, they subsisted almost exclusively on alcohol. It's a goddamned miracle that they--with the exception of Bob Stinson--are still alive, based on the abuse their bodies--specifically their livers--have taken over the years.

In addition to their prolific booze consumption, they routinely trashed tour buses, hotel rooms, and had little respect for any kind of authority figure. The book is littered with examples of self-destructive behavior. I'm not complaining, though. The book is highly entertaining, and the band's hijinks left me either laughing or simply thinking, "What the fuck?! They actually DID that?!"

Mixed among the laughs are stories of sadness. And this leads me to Bob Stinson. The man had about the most horrific childhood imaginable. He was shuttled from home to home, and badly mistreated by his biological father and stepfather. The miracle is that he found the guitar, and music provided salvation for him. Mehr relates a story of an insightful social worker--Stinson was in almost constant trouble with substance abuse and bad behavior leading him to spend lots of time in juvenile facilities--who recognized that music was the one creative outlet that young Bob had. The social worker recommended that Bob's musical interest be encouraged. Though he never was able to shake substance abuse, and in fact may have suffered from bipolar disorder, it's not melodramatic to say that music saved his life. Despite the fact he died at the young age of 35, if Stinson hadn't had music, his life could have been cut short much earlier than that.

Bob didn't just find salvation in music, but he provided a livelihood (and a career) for his half-brother Tommy by making the kid take up the bass.

The book isn't simply about bad behavior and wild escapades. Mehr delves deeply into the Replacements' music and Paul Westerberg's songwriting. Though I've been a fan of the band since the mid-1980s, I didn't know much about the creation of their songs and albums. Thanks to Mehr's great research and experience as a music critic, we get wonderful behind-the-scenes views of all the band's LPs.

As any Replacements fan knows, the band's live shows were notorious. Depending on the night, their shows could either be the greatest performances anyone had ever seen, or colossal train wrecks. (Though the train wrecks became less frequent after Bob Stinson was replaced by Slim Dunlap and the band became a tad more dependable). Mehr provides insight into exactly what went into whether the Replacements were dialed in, or headed to disaster.

I need to cut this little review short, so I'll just close by saying if you're a fan of the Replacements, you need to read this book. And if I'm up to it, I'll add more to this review later.