100 best covers: #94 Rheostatics “The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

Here’s a cover that took many many years to appreciate and it’s because the original is oh so deeply ingrained in me. 

Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot’s original is a romantic commemoration of the sinking of the American freighter, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior in 1975. The disaster is one of the best known to happen on the Great Lakes, resulting in the deaths of all of its crewmen and improvements to shipping regulations. The song was released just over a year after the actual disaster, instantly becoming one of Lightfoot’s biggest commercial successes. These days, it is his most easily recognizable track and one of his own personal favourites. His is a haunting piece, but not because of the music. It’s a pretty straightforward if not sorrowful composition but the words really stay with you, able to easily conjure teardrops out of the corners of Canada’s collective eyes.

Rheostatics are iconic (some might say iconoclastic) in their own right and unleashed their cover as the penultimate track on the CD version of their now classic 1991 album, “Melville”. I don’t think it as widely known as the original but it is definitely accepted as part of the Canadian alt-rock canon. Yet still, it drove this particular writer/blogger nuts for years, always wanting to hear Lightfoot to sing those words: “The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

Once I accepted that Rheostatics’ cover is a different beast from the original, however, I grew to love it. They extended it from the original six minutes to well over eight, adding plenty of simmering guitars, wailing solos, and some wonderful cymbal washes, reflecting the wildness of those turbulent Lake Superior waters. And all those heartfelt words are still there but sung in a different tone, perhaps with a bit more anger than sadness.

Have a listen to both versions below (though if you’re Canadian, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the original) and let me know what you think in the comments section.

The cover:

The original:

(And if you’re up for a third option, I can offer up the deadpan delivered drone of the Dandy Warhols rendition here.)

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #9 New Model Army “Purity”

This fact may come as a shock to some of you but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t go to my first ever concert until I was 19 years old. I’m not making excuses here. It’s just that I lived in a small town in southern Ontario, country music territory for an alt-rock fan, and just far enough away from Toronto for a teen without a driver’s licence or a job to make things impractical. Add to that the fact that many of the concerts I really wanted to see were limited to attendees 19 and over and you have some serious challenges.

So the first show came in the summer of 1993. My friend Tim asked me if I wanted to go see New Model Army with him at the now famed Lee’s Palace and I couldn’t say no. He drove us into Scarborough Town Centre and we took the subway downtown, where we spent the day leading up to the show trawling the used CD stores. I purchased copies of Primus’s “Sailing the seas of cheese” and Buffalo Tom’s “Let me come over”. However, neither of them would make it home with me after being left somewhere at Bathurst subway station in our haste to catch the last subway back to Scarborough. I remember being particularly nervous when security was checking ID at the door to Lee’s (as I said, I didn’t have my licence at the time) and they did hesitate when I showed a roughed up copy of my birth certificate and some questionable photo ID but then, shrugged and let me in.

The opening acts that evening were friends and frequent contributors of the band: tattoo artist and poet, Joolz Denby and electric violinist, Ed Alleyne-Johnson. The latter performer made quite the impression on Tim and me, utilizing all sorts of tricks and pedals to bend and mutate the sound of his instrument and also to record, loop, and play back these sounds until it felt to us like he had a whole string orchestra up on the empty stage with him. It goes without saying that the headliners were the real highlight that night, effectively hooking me on the energy of live performances for the rest of my life, but Alleyne-Johnson’s set has also stuck with me almost 25 years later, whereas I had to do a bit of research to remember the other opener.

Ed Alleyne-Johnson was also a proper member of New Model Army between the years of 1989 and 1994, which is incidentally my favourite period in their 37 year career. His fiddle introduced a folk sound to the band’s already gigantic palette of music, whose oils always served mainly as an intriguing base layer for the lyrics of the band’s frontman and driving force, Justin Sullivan.

The rains move in eastwards, in waves of succession
Drawing lines of grey across the sky
With history just as close as a hand on the shoulder
In hunger and impatience we cry
The battle against corruption rages in each corner
There must be something better, something pure

These, the opening lines of “Purity” give you an idea of the types of words and the imagery invoked by Sullivan, the poet laureate of ‘hopeless causes’, ranking up there with Billy Bragg as one of alt-rock’s best political consciences. On this track, he takes arms against corruption in both the science laboratories and the church pews, making us question what is pure, what is good. All the while, the acoustic guitar is given a serious workout, the drums stomp and the Alleyne-Johnson’s fiddles scream and we wish we were anywhere else but this world described by Sullivan. Yet in all its dystopian angst, it’s a lovely track that always transports me back to an early summer night back in 1993.

If you’ve never heard “Purity” (or any other track by New Model Army), I strongly suggest you give it a spin now.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.

Vinyl love: Alvvays “Antisocialites”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: Alvvays
Album Title: Antisocialites
Year released: 2017
Details: limited edition, pink

The skinny: It’s the sophomore release by Toronto-based indie pop quartet led by Molly Rankin. The jury is still out since it’s still so new but initial spins have this one ranking just as high on the playability scale as their self-titled debut.

Standout track: “In undertow”