So I started this series counting down my favourite albums of 1991 back near the end of January and we’ve finally reached the number one spot. And the album at the top is likely one that nobody would have guessed. In fact, some of you might be thinking this a gag, given the day. But I assure you, this is no April fool’s day joke.
My favourite album from 1991 is “Shakespeare my butt…” by Lowest of the Low.
In fact, this album is likely one of favourite albums ever. You know the type of album I’m talking about – one of those that you listened to so often, the lettering on the side of the cassette was worn off, one that never left your CD player, whose songs made it on to almost every mixed tape/CD/mp3 playlist you made over the years, one of those albums that you can still, even now, listen to over and over again and love every song. For me, this is one of those albums.
For the majority of you who I’m sure don’t know about Lowest of the Low, they were an independent, alternative rock four-piece from Toronto who made a name on the Queen street circuit in the early 1990s, by splendidly fusing folk and punk music. They were championed heavily by alternative radio station CFNY (now Edge 102) and became so popular around Toronto that they were featured on a short-lived CBC series (“Ear to the ground”) and their debut album (yes, this one) became the best-selling independent release of all time in Canada in 1991, until it was unseated, later that very year, by the Barenaked Ladies’ “Yellow tape”.
Their second album “Hallucigenia” was released in 1994 but it received poor reviews from critics and fans due to the change in sound towards a harder edge. They broke up a few months later at the Cafe Diplimatico, or so the rumour goes. Six or so years later, they reunited for a set of concerts that quickly sold out and led to a string of shows that culminated in a headlining gig at the Molson amphitheater in 2001 with British folk-rock icon, Billy Bragg and the Canadian alt-rock newcomers, The Weakerthans. It seemed that they had become even more popular after they had broken up. They released a live album and an album of new material called “Sordid fiction” before breaking up again in 2007. Frontman Ron Hawkins has since re-formed the band with pretty much a whole new lineup (only drummer David Alexander remains from the early days) and released a couple of very decent records. Indeed, I like most of their music but their debut is still by far my favourite of their albums.
I first heard “Shakespeare my butt…” in 1993, my hiatus year between high school and university. Heather, a co-worker at my 7-Eleven job with whom I have long ago lost touch, loaned me a copy of the album on cassette tape after I mentioned I had heard a few of their songs on CFNY. I made a copy for myself after liking what I heard and it truly became the soundtrack to that summer. I bought a copy of album on compact disc the following year, which I still have but haven’t played in a long time, choosing instead to spin it on vinyl.
“Shakespeare my butt…” has a great mix of upbeat rockers and acoustic ballads. It was rumoured that many of the songs on the album were only meant to be demos but the label liked them as they were and they stuck. I have no proof of said rumour but I think if this were true and they had meant for the debut to sound like their sophomore album, I might never have gotten into them as much as I did.
I liked that they weren’t just a rock band (if you know what I mean), like the rest of Canadian music at that time. Also, the more acoustic guitar feel to their songs allowed me to hear and enjoy the lyrics. Really, it’s Ron Hawkins’ (and to some extent, Steven Stanley’s) lyrics that sold me on this album. I loved the witticisms, the literary references and yes, the references to Toronto people and places. They wrote about serial killers (“So long Bernie“), homeless people (“Henry needs a new pair of shoes“), gossips (“Gossip talkin’ blues“), and their favourite Toronto bars (“Just about ‘The Only’ blues”). It was just universally excellent.
“Shakespeare my butt…” is solid from beginning to end, with different songs becoming my favourites at different times over the years, but for the purposes of my three picks for you, I’ve settled on these.
”Subversives”: I feel like this first track is Ron Hawkins doing Billy Bragg. You can almost picture him standing on a street corner in Toronto, perhaps in front Sneaky Dee’s at College and Bathurst, electric guitar plugged into a portable amp at his feet and his friend Lawrence Nichols at his side with his harmonica at the ready. It’s a mellow busker, just the guitar and mouth organ and Hawkins’ rough-hewn and romantic vocals, almost right up to the end when he and Nichols turn it into a rocking jam, reminiscent of the end of Billy Bragg’s “Levi Stubbs’ tears”. “Subversives” is a plaintive love song at its very heart, which is why my wife and I chose it out of the many of our favourite Low songs to dance to at our wedding reception. Hawkins has said he wrote it while his girlfriend at the time was away on a trip to New York. He became convinced that something bad was going to happen and started writing these words as litany of all the things for which he hoped and dreamed. A beautiful song filled with compelling and lovely notions such as these: “There’s a place in my soul where no one else can adore you, and like the poet-soldier says, ‘I would spill my blood for you.’”
”Bleed a little while tonight”: This song was number five on my list of top tunes of 1991 and when I wrote that post, I foresaw then that when I got around to doing a best albums list for the year, “Shakespeare my butt…” would rank somewhere up near the top. (It’s like I knew.) “Bleed a little while tonight” is a five minute beauty of love and loss. Hawkins sings wistfully while strumming his guitar while his musical foil, Stephen Stanley, flits around his vocals with his electric guitar and adds his own voice in harmony and in response. It seems like a new love (or is it lust) because Hawkins only knows about as a much as a “smile or two can say” but yet, the lack of her has him not “feelin’ all too right”. And he’s bleeding. He’s remembering the time that she nearly kissed him blind on Bathurst street, a street that I myself remember all too well. It’s a song for carousing with mates or for listening to while you’re crying in you beer, either way it’s universal in its pain and sorrow. “But you’ve got someone and it ain’t me. I’ve got myself again but I just can’t let this be.”
”Rosy and grey”: My last pick for you is another song that appeared (at number eleven) on my Best tunes of 1991 list. “Rosy and grey” is a fan favourite. In fact, I remember a certain night sitting in a now defunct pub in Toronto called The James Joyce with my friend Zed, a marathon night, a night we drank in there so long that we needed a second dinner. There was a musician there that night, just a guy and his guitar, and there were a few Lowest of the Low songs that appeared in his sets. When he played this, almost as many people sang along as did when he covered Oasis’s “Don’t turn back in anger”, another crowd pleaser. And why not? “Rosy and grey” is a harmonica and mandolin-laden song about finding the cheer in the dreary, finding the “smell of snow” warming, and the joy of drinking a beer bought with your recent unemployment cheque. It is here that Hawkins shows an understanding for the improvements that can be made by the love of the right woman and the need for hope when you’re up against it. “Well, they’re picking up trash and they’re putting down roads, and they’re brokering stocks, the class-struggle explodes, and I’ll play this guitar just the best that I can.” Because everything is rosy and grey. And it just feels that much rosier with this song (and this album) in the world.
Thanks, as always, for tuning in. If you missed any of these posts, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”
3. Primal Scream “Screamadelica”
2. Teenage Fanclub “Bandwagonesque”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.