Static Journey, vol. 2

I dipped into the second volume of Darin Cappe’s 9 volume box set retrospective of the Rheostatics’ career. Darin is releasing one volume a week up ’til the end of March, in order to commemorate the one year anniversary of the last Rheos concert. I posted about volume one here.

Volume 2 of Static Journey is almost entirely about Melville, the Rheostatics’ second album. Released in 1991, this was the record that truly established the band’s credibility among fans, critics and (perhaps most importantly, in terms of their ultimate influence on Canadian music) musicians. One doesn’t so much listen to that album as come to terms with it. My own experience with the record is probably more or less typical; when I first listened to the disc, I didn’t quite get it – the songs didn’t resonate, and it all just sounded kind of weird and foreign to my ears. I had occasion to listen to the thing repeatedly more or less unintentionally – there was a cassette dub of the record in my car that I listened to frequently while going back and forth between Toronto and Windsor on weekend visits to my then girlfriend. I only listened to the Rheostatics side to get back to the beginning of the recording on the other side. As time went by, I found myself strangely drawn to these songs, and gradually I became addicted to Melville; needless to say, I can no longer even remember what was on the other side of that tape. My point is that the music is somewhat inaccessible, or at least not immediately so, if one is coming from a more-or-less mainstream sensibility – but one thing Melville did was to announce, from the opening chords of Record Body Count that this album would be something different. It took some effort, attention and involvement to understand the record, but once I really sat and listened to it, I didn’t want to hear anything else.

There is a youthful spirit in evidence throughout Melville; many of the characters in the songs are either explicitly or implicitly high-school age kids, and the songs are otherwise largely concerned with aliens, spaceships and memories of childhood bicycle rides. Also in evidence are some more weighty (and by default, I guess) “mature” concerns like politics (Horses) and the struggle for life and death (Saskatchewan). The end result on the album, as I see it, was a certain sense of uneven-ness. Although I have ended up loving this album very dearly and would place it in my top ten albums of all-time, this is so because of the high level of musical accomplishment, the freshness of musical approach and explicitly Canadian content. It cannot be denied that there is, however, a certain lack of unity to the record. It feels in some ways like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive unit. Darin’s retrosective set of tracks, predominantly live performances from the latter years of the band’s career, places the enormity of the young Rheostatics’ musical achievement in context; for that young a band to have developed the chops that they did, as both players and writers, is a remarkable achievement. The series of live performances in Darin’s collection are an enhancement to that legacy, showing the progression of the Rheos as musicians beyond 1991, but all while firmly rooted in the excellence of the material they wrote and recorded a decade and a half ago on a sophomore foray into the studio.

The first track in the set is listed (on Darin’s site) as a Morningside interview with “Jeff Edwards”. I don’t know who Jeff Edwards is, but dammit, that’s the voice of Canada’s most beloved public radio host of all time, Peter Gzowski. Gzowski is interviewing Dave Bidini, Dave Clark and Martin Tielli, and they are discussing the early history of the band. Tim Vesely either wasn’t there at all, or he maintained his usual mysterious and near-complete silence, at least during this portion of the interview. You can find the complete interview here. Clarkie always made me laugh the most, and I love the bit in this interview when he says very matter-of-factly, of the band’s first breakup, “Jah sent us asunder.”

Next is a track called Woodstuck – this one is new to me. A “Dave” song, I would guess, as it’s fairly typical of many of his contributions, referring to popular culture explicitly (I think if I was cooler, I would probably refer to this type of writing as “meta” rock) and being a more-or-less straight ahead composition.

The third cut in the set is Melvillius. I have to admit that I am at a loss on this one – anyone know the full story behind it? I’m not sure what this cut represents.

The fourth track is where the songs from Melville begin. First up is the album version of Record Body Count – a must in a collection of this nature. If Ballad of Wendel Clark got the Rheostatics known, it was nonetheless a bit of a novelty tune, similar to Be My Yoko Ono for the Barenaked Ladies. The song that stuck with people, the song that made people ask “Who are those guys?”, the Rheostatics’ equivalent to If I Had a Million Dollars was Record Body Count. That song was the perfect encapsulation of Hosers in High School, a compelling “story” song that is at the same time humourous, touching, and tragic. It is a unique animal, announcing its entrance jarringly (from a sonic perspective) and exiting abruptly too, with its distinctive narrative twist at the end.

Next up is some recorded stage banter from the final concert. Martin talks about being upset that Dave writes books about how he (Martin) smells. In one of the more humourous moments from that concert, Martin points out the musical similarity between the melody at the beginning of Aliens to the Great White North theme popularized by SCTV’s Bob and Doug McKenzie. This snippet is priceless, in my view, because it gives you, in one quick blast, an example of the band’s always amusing attempts to bust each other’s balls, but it also displays the very real vocal limitations that Martin was struggling with during that last show.

The live version of Aliens included shows the band’s uncanny ability to somehow duplicate on stage the liquid glitter they recorded in studio. If I had one criticism of this version, it would be that it seems to plod just a little bit, especially near the end. This version hints a little bit (as does the preceding excerpt of stage banter) at another crucial feature of the band’s act: their sense of humour and experimentation. Dave carries over the joke during the intro about “B minor” and incorporates it into the song. You could expect that sort of thing pretty much every time you went to see the Rheos to some extent. sometimes, it could be taken to extremes – apparently, on one visit to a club in Winnipeg, the Rheos decided to make up songs – on the spot, mind you – to match the titles inscribed on a set list left behind by a previous band. I once heard Martin make reference to one of his favourites from that evening; I seem to recall they even played a brief snippet of it – it was called “Jesus in a Speedo”, the very song mentioned in this interview recounting the Winnipeg shenanigans.

Next in line is Northern Wish, which also gets the live treatment. I have always welled up with a weird sense of national pride about the band when they come to the portion of the song in which Martin sings:

We don’t need mathematics, and we don’t need submarines

to tell how far the land does go – until it hits the shore!

This is another live recording that shows the near-effortless recreation of complicated arrangements and the interposition of some interesting improvisational elements as well. I always loved it the way they did this song in the latter years of the band, a little quieter and more restrained than the arrangement on the album, which has a type of chest-pounding patriotic anthem quality to it. In my view, the subtlety of the latter approach was preferable.

The live version of Saskatchewan included has Kate Fenner taking the lead vocal. I have to confess I’d never heard of her before listening to this track. Wow, what a voice! In this way, the Rheos continue to introduce me to other excellent Canadian recording artists – they almost always added local acts to their own bill that were quirky, a little less well-known and a bit more eccentric than the supporting acts chosen by other indie rockers. In later years, the band would add a night during their stint in residence at the famous Horseshoe Tavern called “guest night” in which a cavalcade of Can-rock stars would take the stage to do versions of Rheostatics tunes with the boys backing them up. As for this version of this song, I can’t say that I ever heard them perform it poorly. Who knew that perhaps the most beautiful song ever written about a shipwreck would bear the title of a land-locked province?

The live version of Horses from the Hillside Festival in 2003 has excellent keyboard additions by Kevin Hearn, a formerly Barenaked (now clothed?) Lady and mega-talented muli-instrumentalist Lewis Melville, the guy after whom this album was named. An absolute staple at Rheostatics live shows, the song is a potent mix of Alberta labour politics (I’ve always just assumed it refers to the violent Gainers meat-packing strike in 1986), a chorus that includes an apparent reference to Maple Leafs play-by-play man Joe Bowen (“Holy Mackinaw Joe”) and one of the most cinematic lyrics you’ll ever hear in a protest song:

Word came down and it crashed through my door
From the twenty-first floor.
I was thinking about leaving early for lunch
When he told me to shut off my press.
His face turned green and his white shirt was wet
Like he’d just seen an accident.
We threw our masks into a pile.
The trucks pulled away for good.

I have always seen this song as somewhat emblematic of Hoser-rock, because it contains a character named “Gordie”, and there couldn’t possibly be a more Canadian name in my opinion: cf. Messrs Howe, Lightfoot, Downie and Pinsent. In this recording, Dave’s vocals, as a result of his enthusiasm, shade into the shouted/distorted range at times near the end of the recording, but Tim’s insistent bass and Michael Phillip Wojewoda’s pounding drums propel this version past that little technical detail toward greatness. The song concludes with Martin’s trademark Steinberger somehow being coaxed, via the whammy bar, to whinny like a horse under duress – the aural allusion is unmistakable, even first time Rheos listeners will hear it and smile.

The live version of Christopher provides yet another demonstration of a live band at the top of their craft working together to improvise upon the form of the existing song in near-perfect synchronization. It’s familiar, but very much like discovering the song all over again; this too was a big part of the Rheostatics experience and why being a Green Sprout was very much about seeing the band live whenever possible. I once attended seven Rheostatics shows in twelve days – when they were doing one of their extended stints at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern – and never felt like I’d seen the same show or even the same version of a song like Horses, which got played more often than not.

Chansons Les Ruelles would have to be a bit of a rarity. From the Rheostatics live shows I attended, Tim’s experiment of writing a song in French only infrequently made it on to the set list. I have always liked the way this song is delivered, in perfect ninth-grade French class accent. I keep waiting for Marie-Claire, Pictou and Henri to make an appearance in la derniere verse. The quality of the recording on this track is much lower than that of the other tracks, likely because Darin had very few recorded live alternatives from which to choose.

Lyings Wrong is a version taken from CBC’s Brave New Waves in 1987, and a pretty good one except for a somewhat grating snare sound – I’m sure it’s NOT synthetic, but it sounds like it is. I’ve always loved the last little bit of this song, both for the lines themselves and for the very Canadian way Martin says the words “throw” and “out”:

If your right hand makes you fumble cut it off and throw it from you, for it’s better to have lost one. If your right eye makes you blink, pluck it out, throw it in the kitchen sink for it’s better to have lost one.

In this version, Martin changes the last half of the stanza, probably because he couldn’t remember the lines while singing them.

The version of It from Melville is included. Perhaps indicative of the overall quality of some of the live versions included in the set, when I was listening to the collection I believed this version to be from the album but had to check Darin’s blog for confirmation.

The next clip is some stage banter taken from the final concert immediately preceding the band’s performance of When Winter Comes. I found it interesting that reference is made in this segment – again – to the “first time we broke up” (after the early Rheostatics’ disastrous attempts to tour Ireland in the late 80s). It is interesting to consider that the first track in this volume of the compilation, the 1989 Morningside interview, makes reference to that break-up; lo and behold, there is the band almost twenty years later still joking about the “first break up” – though it may be a somewhat stinging indictment on the subject of comedic originality, what better testament could there be to the band’s longevity? The live version of When Winter Comes included is from February 2001 at the Horseshoe Tavern, as are a number of the final clips in this volume. The ‘Shoe was always my favourite place to see the boys, and I am glad to see that a large number of clips from the ‘Shoe have made it into the set. I found it hard, in the context of the retrospective set, not to think about all the water under the bridge in my years of following the band while listening to this track – we’re almost 20 years down the road now from when Dave wrote “I hope I’m never bitter, I hope I never change”. So far, so good! Listen for a playful snippet of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at around the 1:35 mark.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, again live from the Horseshoe (this time in 2005) is another golden moment. I preferred it when the band gave this type of general feel to the song over the version that they sometimes played (the one they put on Double Live). Strangely, although this is the song that got me into the band (I only had a tape of Melville in the first place because I was interested in this cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s classic ballad) I now find it one of the less compelling songs from Melville. In any event, this live version gives you a sense of how spellbound the audience in the back room at the ‘Shoe could become when the boys were spinning out an intense sonic landscape.

Lastly, there is even a live version of You are Very Star once again from the Horseshoe (March 25th 2000). Hearing this simple little ditty, traditionally a show closer saved for long after last call was over and the patience of the local publican had been exhausted somehow reminds me just as much of the all-ages – please read “little kids’ matinee” that I saw one Sunday afternoon during Green Sprouts Music Week at the Shoe.

By junior

Guitar owner and silly person.