CD Reviews – Juno Awards Album; Hummers

April 2, 2003

The annual Juno awards take place on April 6, at 8:00 pm on CTV. To promote the event, EMI Canada has produced a CD called A Year of Great Canadian Music, which landed on my desk last week. I sat down to give it a listen and see if the title was deserved:

Predictably, the nominees include such Canadian notables as country-pop veterans Blue Rodeo, the ubiquitous Celine [fast becoming the Anne Murray of our time – but I can’t see her boycotting the Junos if she wins too many], teeny-popper Avril Lavigne, and the increasingly whiny but occasionally rockin’ Our Lady Peace. Lead OLP member Raine Maida’s Lady, Chantal Kreviazuk, is not nominated this year, probably because her album was released too late.

The selections on the CD are equally predictable:

The Blue Rodeo single, Bulletproof, starts out like it’s going to be a Twin Peaksish (remember Julee Cruise) warped pop dirge, but quickly turns pedestrian as Jim Cuddy’s clear but bland vocals all but annihilate the instrumentation. I admit I cringe at the sound of anything that even resembles country music, but Blue Rodeo had a few songs in the past that I didn’t mind. There is nothing striking here, however.

Ex-Philosopher King Jarvis Church’s Shake it Off sounds like : well : The Philosopher Kings. He may as well have kept the old moniker and benefited from the name recognition. Church is notoriously arrogant and, possibly because of this, the Kings managed to attain great popularity while never being truly embraced by the Canadian audience. I expect Church’s solo work to be similarly received. The song is catchy, interesting, and well produced, and he is one of those rare men who can sing in a very high register without sounding ridiculous. His music is a unique fusion of funky pop and something that is entirely his own.

Sam Roberts’ music has been called “some of the freshest power-pop to be heard from a major label Canadian artist since Sloan’s Twice Removed” by HMV.com, but despite a similar retro-Beatles guitar sound and some nice but far too understated vocal harmonies, there is too much pop and not enough power – or ingenuity for that matter – to make the comparison stick.

Remy Shand sounds like Jamiroquai on valium – it’s what my mother would have called “nice music.” Next:

I’ve heard Celine Dion’s A New Day Has Come so many times it seems like it’s been out for a decade. It’s an ok song, but Celine does not handle subtler passages very well – especially live. This song really highlights her weakness, and when she performed it on Rosie O’Donnell she seemed to be really labouring to keep her voice subdued. I think her best song is still the Jim Steinman penned All Coming Back to Me Now, as like Steinman’s favourite son Meatloaf, Dion really shines on the bombastic numbers. She lacks the subtlety or humility to pull off serious emotion, but she can wrench out over-the-top pop pathos while maintaining credibility where most would simply seem foolish.

In contrast, Diana Krall, who sounds very masculine for much of this song (A Case of You), is a master of control and powerful understatement. She has a lovely voice and this is a lovely song, though it is so doleful that it is nearly morose. Her bluesy interpretation is right on the mark however – gutsy and emotive without becoming overwrought.

Shania’s I’m Gonna Getcha Good (does she pull these titles out of some moldy country cliché bible?) is a thin sounding piece of country pop fluff which was apparently recorded while several of the instruments were not plugged in. Her signature off-key vocals would benefit greatly from a little more ‘cover.’ I’m not a fan of Shania’s, but this is the worst thing she’s done, and the fact that she’s up for songwriter of the year for this godawful tune is astonishing. The strings in the bridge are blatantly out of place, and suggest that the album’s engineer had a last minute urge to beef up this tinny tune by any means possible. Amazingly, the song was produced by her husband, Mutt Lange, who normally could coax a richer sound out of a mosquito in a soup can. The bottom end drops out of the song during the chorus as though Lange is trying to negate the obnoxious thousand-voice choruses he popularized with Def Leppard by working a minimalist routine on his wife’s albums. The fact that she’s released both a pop version and a country version of this album (both sound like country anyway, thanks in part to the shrill vocals) is the most shameless marketing ploy ever, though it shows that this is one artist who makes no bones about being in it for the money.

Conversely, Lynda Lemay’s single J’veux bien t’aimer is exceedingly dramatic but far from commercial. Why is that so many French ballads sound like they should accompany an ice skating performance? I can almost picture the skaters soaring around the rink as I listen. This is not a good thing. However, it is a breath of fresh air and distinctly different from the Anglophone music that is popular right now.

Avril Lavigne has in no way been influenced by her francophone roots, and is yet another young commercial pop artist who looks far more punk than she sounds. Punk-wear is the trend of the moment, no doubt about it. I doubt any of these little-punkettes own an album by the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, or even the Ramones, but hey, they look ratty and wear leather bracelets, so who am I to question their credibility. Complicated is pure teeny-pop fluff a la Mandy Moore, but her producers have taken a cue from the Pink camp and packaged her in a punky guise which totally belies her music. Mandy drives around with her friends in a formation of brightly coloured VW Bugs while eating candy; Avril and her friends tool around in a fleet of skateboards eating candy – see the difference? Didn’t think so. It’s a shame, because there is plenty of room in the music scene for a young rocker with early Joan Jett or Susie Quatro attitude. This song is catchy and well produced, despite the sometimes weak vocals, and preferable to most Britney Spears or N’Sync tunes. I’d like it more if they packaged her honestly.

Amanda Marshall, on the other hand, has an amazing rock and roll voice like so many other great Canadian female rock vocalists before her (Lee Aaron, Darby Mills, Holly Woods [Toronto], the list goes on:). The first time I heard her, she was an unknown, unsigned artist singing Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower a capella on the beach during a Much Music interview with her buddy Colin James. I couldn’t wait to hear her album, but when it came out my hopes for another great Canadian rock performer were crushed. This latest offering does little to revive them, though it’s catchy as hell and a lot of fun. The opening guitars remind me of anything by the The Spin Doctors.

I have similar concerns about Alanis’s direction. Her contribution to the Juno album, Precious Illusions, has that airy India-inspired feel of many of her hits, but it sounds far too much like many of her other songs too. This is a problem with much of her work – there is so much sameness, and the better songs on her albums rarely are showcased. It’s like she’s suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder [Dissociative Identity Disorder as it’s now called, for all you PSYC majors] – there is the cool, ground breaking, kick-ass Alanis, and the ethereal, shoe-gazing girl who aims for precocity but too often simply annoys.

Over all, the current Juno line-up seems to have finally proved that in Canada, Rock and Roll is dead.

Nickelback are the closest thing to a true rock band to have thrived in Canada over the last few years, though a formulaic approach and unthreatening attitude have helped warm the pop audience to these Hannah-born boys. There are some great songs in their repertoire, but Too Bad is not one of them, nor is the unbearable Jon Bon Jovi-ish Hero, featuring Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott (vocalist for Saliva, who actually aren’t bad). We can be thankful, however, that Nickelback cronies, Default, seem to have dropped off the radar.

It is too bad that so many great Canadian acts have been neglected this year, including Danko Jones and the Tea Party who have been relegated to the Hard Rock category, and Molly Johnson who is only nominated for a jazz award.

I recall a recent interview where techno-metal artist Rob Zombie admitted that he is baffled by the tastes of many young music fans today: “What is it with all the kids listening to this old fart music that their grandmas like?” He’s got a point. When I was in high school [centuries ago:] we sure as hell weren’t rocking out to Enrique. Take away the image, and the music of Britney and the boy bands isn’t far removed from ABBA. I could hear Britney doing Waterloo, albeit with a pulsing dance beat:

In support of the ‘old fart’ theory, Bif Naked did a decent album this year [though she seems to be suffering from Lee Aaron syndrome, i.e. a good artist wasting her time with a mediocre songwriter] but it did not garner a mention, nor did the album by Holly McNarland, which only was nominated for best album cover.

As a hard music fan, I’m always annoyed that the Junos have no category where hard rock, metal and industrial bands can be nominated. They have a hard rock category, but heck, Treble Charger are in it and if they’re hard rock, so is Avril. This is a shame, because some of Canada’s finest and most influential acts have been heavier bands. Nettwerk (record label) bands like Skinny Puppy and Delerium and groundbreaking metal acts like Fear Factory and the newly reformed VoiVod have not only produced some innovative and vital music, they have also influenced scores of American bands who proudly list them as the forerunners of their respective genres. I don’t need to tell anyone about the success of Canadian rock acts like Neil Young, Rush and BTO, and we have also produced some of the worlds finest punk bands [DOA, SNFU the list goes on]. This is in contrast to Canadian pop, where so many of the acts are merely the Canadian versions of well known American acts. Pop music simply is not our forte. Meanwhile, many upcoming heavy bands like Breach of Trust, Kitty and Slaves on Dope, are also producing great music with little attention. The latter band has already left Canada to try their luck in the states, and others will surely follow.

The only other genre in Canadian music that seems particularly vital these days, is rap. While I don’t listen to a lot it, I find that it’s actually the American product that I dislike a lot of the time. Canadian rap artists – from the Dream Warriors, to Maestro Fresh Wes, to Swollen Members – seem to have a fresher approach, and a greater diversity of styles than the largely inbred American scene [the bands, not the people]. Forget the ubiquitous 6 degrees of separation game, you can find connections between most American rap acts with only 2 degrees, and with a few notable exceptions like Eminem, most of these acts look and sound similar, right down the to cliché gangsta attitude and the bouncy-cars-and-boobs-and-butts videos.

The aforementioned Swollen Members continue a tradition of cool and unique Canadian rap that combines musicality, microphone skills, slick production, and a rock edge. They are one of the most listenable acts on this year’s Juno list, and a more credible rock band than most of the rock offerings this year. Sadly, they did not make the CD (which instead features a catchy rap track by Rascalz), and they were nominated for only one award -Group of the Year – along with another unique and vital Canadian act, Sum 41, whose melding of punk, metal and rap is reminiscent of early Beastie Boys material.

You can vote for your choice in the fan favourite category at http://junos.ctv.ca, but don’t expect your favourite act to be on the list – it’s rather.. well.. predictable. Oh, and the page is confusing, but the submit button for the entry form is in fact the Juno logo on the bottom right, which does not look like a button at all.

SAVE THE JETS – THE HUMMERS

The Hummers album is the antithesis of the Juno offerings. Watching these corporate music programs can lead you to forget that Canada has a thriving indie music scene, which continues to be largely ignored by music journalists despite the immense popularity of many of these bands.

Save the Jets in an instrumental album – the fourth from this “all improv musical collective from Winnipeg” [http://www.the-hummers.com/]. Canada has a tradition of producing cool instrumental bands, from the Shuffle Demons [ok, they have some vocals, but the instrumentation carries the songs] to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, which share strong musicianship, eclectic style, and a tendency toward repetitiveness.

The Hummers funky, well played, instrumental jazz is no exception. The songs are all based on repetitive rhythm tracks with some fine jams played over top. The best of these songs are moody and trippy, while others tend to drag. A lot of great jazz and funk numbers use repetition to great effect, but if the melody doesn’t quite flow, the repetition becomes obvious instead of natural, and the result can be annoying. A couple of the tracks on Save The Jets fall into this category, but others succeed at creating living soundscapes that transport the listener and transcend the individual notes, chords and samples.

The open track, Meal Ticket, is the worst of the bunch and meanders toward muzak, I think due in part to the overabundance of high toned instruments and bells. This is one track where the repetition becomes annoying, but the album improves dramatically after this.

A Song For Our Pets has a great improvisational feel, featuring percussive scat vocalizations and some fun hip hop samples over a deep funky bass line. The song is upbeat, snappy and fresh, in contrast to its follower, Feels Good, Doesn’t It. One of the albums best tracks, Feels Good steals the weird reverb effect from Mr. Oizo’s hit Flat Beat, but slows and mellows into a hypnotic trance groove. Like Flat Beat this song is dominated by quirky sound effects, but The Hummers layer these effects within the song, rather than obnoxiously plastering them over the top as Oizo did. This song, Hightower and Mahoney, and the Green Green, are smooth and restrained; the subtlety of the tracks draw the listener in to search for hidden depths below the sonic layers. I suspect that recreational drug users would find infinite variations and surprises within these tracks. The hummers definitely write music for those who like to trip out. The title of the closing track, “When The Drugs Wore Off, It Wasn’t So Much Fun Anymore,” is fortunately not accurate – unlike many trippy bands, the Hummers music never becomes so self-indulgent that straight folks can’t relate. This final track is also the jazziest on the album, and great fun.

The One Day Flu is my favourite, and it reminds me of the best work of Stone Gossard’s side project Brad, without the grating vocals. Subtle and smooth, this is great mellow jazzy tune with a bass line that grooves but never grates.

Also entertaining are the Hummers tongue-in-cheek, euphemistic song titles which [deliberately?] fail to lend any interpretation to the songs. This is music for long highway drives, or all nighters.

Save The Jets can take a few listens to really get into. I was put off by the first track on my first listen, and it took me some time to get beyond that. Once you warm to these songs, however, they continue to offer new and intriguing layers that will keep you listening. The players are also top notch.

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