Best tunes of 2000: #14 The New Pornographers “The slow descent into alcoholism”

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Track fourteen, the next stop on this short list of great songs from the year 2000 takes us to a hopping ditty off “Mass romantic”, the debut album by The New Pornographers.

But before I go there, I need to talk a little bit about “Fubar”, a Canadian indie film released in 2002 that has since amassed quite the cult following. It is the debut film by Canadian director Michael Dowse and was shot in mockumentary style on digital camera and a tiny budget. The film focuses on two lifelong friends, Terry and Dean, metal heads, beer drinkers, and basically, hosers (for want of a better word). “Fubar” is as hilarious as it is sad and if it didn’t popularize the term “Giv’r”, it certainly didn’t hurt its proliferation in popular culture usage.

But why did I have to mention this film in relation to The New Pornographers’ “The slow descent into alcoholism”? First, because it’s a great Canadian film that could use another plug and reminder. Second, because its soundtrack boasted a playlist of classic Canadian rock tracks as covered by contemporary Canadian artists, including The New Pornographers’ rendition of “Your daddy don’t know” by Toronto. And finally, because Terry and Deaner appear in the video that Michael Dowse made for “The slow descent into alcoholism” (see below), doing what they do best: drinking beer and being hosers.

The New Pornographers formed in Vancouver in 1997 under the leadership of Carl Newman. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the band is really a collective and supergroup, and these days, even after seven albums together, all of its members (there are 8 of them!) still have other established projects on the go, some of them as well-known and successful as this one. What is so unique and incredible about The New Pornos is that they have lasted so long and that their sound is so cohesive, despite the different styles of its vocalists and principle songwriters: the aforementioned Newman, Dan Bejar, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder (who didn’t join until 2005).

In trying to explain “Mass romantic”‘s immediate appeal and hook, critics have been quick to assign different iconic artists as comparison points to each song on the album. Apparently, “The slow descent into alcoholism” is David Bowie. And I suppose I can see a bit of glam rock and a touch of the theatrical in the verses and the way Newman delivers them. It’s a staccato rhythm driving the keys and vocals, all matched up with the ragtime drum beat. However, once Neko Case lovingly layers her soft and punchy backing vocals to Newman’s, all bets are off. Personally, I’ve never seen this band as derivative of any other sound and don’t really see eye-to-eye with those who take the lazy way out and shove them into the power pop pigeonhole. It’s a pop song, sure, and mighty powerful, but this group is one of a kind.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #30 P.S. I Love You “Get over”

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It’s hump day! So to celebrate, I am kicking off yet another list this lovely Wednesday morning. For those counting, that’s three lists I’ve got going, which should suffice to keep me busy for now. This excellent thirty-song list opens with “Get out”, a track off the debut album by Kingston, Ontario’s P.S. I Love You.

This duo, whose moniker is a play on the initials of its frontman, started out as a solo project for guitarist and vocalist, Paul Saulnier in 2006. He later added drummer Benjamin Nelson when he tired of fiddling with the drum machine on his keyboards. Up to now, they’ve released three long players on Canadian indie label, Paper Bag Records, the first of which was “Meet me at the muster station” in 2010.

I happened upon these guys the following year in 2011 when I saw them live at Ottawa Bluesfest, an annual two week music festival that has long-since stopped being only about the blues. Instead, it offers up a wide range of artists from across the spectrum of genres, a virtual marathon of musical splendor. I’ve been going for a number of years now but I think 2011 marked my third year in attendance and perhaps the year I started doing a boatload of research on the bands playing in preparation. P.S. I Love You was one of the artists that caught my attention almost immediately, earning a spot in my schedule with their pure raw energy. And as intense as their recordings are, their live show upped the ante substantially. Indeed, they didn’t have a large audience to start their set but by their final note, they had amassed quite an enthusiastic crowd. It wasn’t a lot of showboating or guitar noodling, just two guys rocking out on stage and making a lot of noise.

Truly, if you listened to any of the tracks on “Meet me at the muster station” without knowing any better, you might not realize there are only two musicians in the group. Like a couple of other duos I can think of, say The White Stripes or The Black Keys, they present a full sound with their limited personnel, but that’s where the comparisons end. Instead of crunchy blues rock, P.S. I Love You leans heavily towards punk and noise rockers, like Sonic Youth or Pixies. Indeed, you can hear the latter especially with Saulnier’s Frank Black-like yelp and snarl vocals.

“Get out” employs some monstrous earthquake guitar rumbles to kick start the frenetic rim-click drumming. A muscular bass line just adds to the pressure accentuated later on by some alien synth washes. It’s all a noisy cacophony that might be unlistenable in another set of hands but luckily for us, Saulnier has a sweet pop sensibility that brings at all together. Then, of course, when he tears in with his don’t-give-a-shit vocals, you feel like you can join in and scream along with him. This is a track that should not be played quietly.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #28 The Wonder Stuff “Circlesquare”

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Song number twenty-eight on this young list is a non-album single from Stourbridge, England’s finest, The Wonder Stuff.

These guys were one of my favourite bands through the 1990s, having picked up on them almost by accident in the very early days of my music explorations. I found their debut album, “Eight legged groove machine”, in my friend Elliott’s cassette tape collection one day and borrowed it, liking the look of the cover and the sound of the names of both the band and the album. I listened to it constantly thereafter, loving the angst-ridden pop sensibility and the sneering attitude of the frontman, Miles Hunt. They sounded unlike anything I was hearing on Canadian radio at the time and though they did eventually become a big deal in England, they never really made it here in North America. Very few people that I knew ever heard of them so it was like having a favourite band all to myself.

The band formed in 1986 and originally comprised of Hunt (vocals, guitar), Malc Treece (guitar), Martin Gilks (drums), and Rob “The bass thing” Jones (on bass, of course). They released a string of four albums between 1986 and 1994, adding and losing members along the way, before ultimately falling to pieces just prior to completing the tour cycle for their fourth album. The band reunited in 2000 for a one-off show that turned into a handful of sold out gigs in England that year. Four years later, Miles Hunt announced he would be soldiering on under The Wonder Stuff moniker with only Malc Treece from the original lineup and a couple of new members. They have since released four albums of new material and continue to play live.

I never actually heard the song “Circlesquare” until a couple of years after it was released, and even then, it was a stripped-down acoustic version of the song that was included as a B-side on the “Welcome to the cheap seats” double EP. It wasn’t until after they broke up and released their career spanning retrospective, “If the Beatles had read Hunter”, that I got my first glimpse at the original.

“Circlesquare” is classic Hunt. Jaded and self-deprecating even way back then, even at a time when life must’ve been good for the band. “I’ve been a long term disappointment to myself, but it hits like a hammer when I’m that to someone else.” Hunt wails away on his acoustic while Treece, his partner in guitar crime, cranks up the machine gun effects pedals, Gilks gets funky with drums and Martin Bell (aka Fiddly) fills every vacant cranny with his fiddle flourishes. It’s an almost perfect snapshot of the band in flux, having been recorded after “The bass thing” left the band and Martin Bell became an official member and just before new bassist Paul Clifford joined. It’s a blend of their electric and electrifying, high energy pop off their aforementioned debut and the acerbic, fiddle crazy folk rock of their most popular album, 1991’s “Never loved Elvis”.

If you’ve never experienced The Wonder Stuff before, you could do worse than start here.

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