John K. Samson – Provincial (Anti)
Bidiniband – In the Rock Hall (Pheromone)
If Canadian rock had men of letters, Dave Bidini and John K. Samson would be two-thirds of a triumvirate alongside Gord Downie. Bidini, of course, is the author of 10 books about music and hockey (his latest, Writing Gordon Lightfoot, is one of his best), and for over 25 years he was a principal songwriter in the Rheostatics, arguably the most creative Canadian rock band of the ’90s. Samson is the barely prolific songwriter at the core of the Weakerthans, who with only four albums in the past 14 years became one of Canada’s most beloved bands, primarily on the strength of Samson’s prose (which he just collected into his first book, Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012).
Both men have always excelled at setting unlikely characters and situations inside compelling and moving songs. Until recently, they’ve always had help from sympathetic bandmates with whom they grew up, musicians who knew instinctively how to cast every quirky quote. Both men’s solo careers challenge them to think outside the box and make full use of new creative opportunities.
Granted, both had wide leeway before: Samson’s pop-punk bandmates have never stopped him from reciting poetry about retired NHL goalies over a detuned banjo and scraped percussion; the Rheostatics’ best and worst trait was that they were capable of and willing to try anything, making them the Canadian equivalent of equally influential and misunderstood American cult bands like the Minutemen and Camper Van Beethoven.
So what are these two bards up to now?
This is Bidiniband’s second album, so they have the upper hand. The debut, 2009’s The Land is Wild, seemed more like Bidini’s non-fiction writing hurriedly set to music—songs to be played at in-store appearances in between reading passages from his books. Here, his seasoned backing trio have been whipped into shape by regular gigging, to the point where they’re almost as sympathetic as the Rheostatics were to Bidini’s nuances. They obviously share his love of Devo, XTC, The Who and Max Webster, elements that were a small part of the Rheostatics’ avalanche of influences, but are brought to the fore here. And not in an imitative way, either; Bidiniband sounds most like, well Dave Bidini.
In fact, In the Rock Hall sounds far better than any record from the last 10 years of the Rheostatics’ discography, because this band knows how to push Bidini, and he’s more than willing to push back. There’s an explosive, though good-natured, musical tension at work here—largely the work of incredibly elastic guitarist Paul Linklater—watching these men throw endless curveballs at each other before uniting over three simple power chords and four-part harmony in a chorus (Bidini is singing better than he ever has). This is most evident on a recasting of the 1994 Rheos song “Earth,” which Bidiniband rescues from the bloated prog-rock mess of the original and transforms into a driving stadium-rock anthem. Mind you, Bidiniband has its own prog-rock mess in the form of “Eunioa,” a 10-minute adaptation of Christian Bök’s book of poetry that will really only appeal to anyone who understands what a “univocal lipogram” is.
There’s a nautical theme throughout—though there’s no reason for a native English speaker to write a song with the phrase “Big Men Go Fast on the Water” as a chorus (unless this originates as an odd translation of an Aboriginal name). Obvious novelty songs like “Popcorn” and “The Best Thing About the ’80s Was You” sound more like well-produced bar-band set-fillers than anything else—but hey, so do most of the Black Eyed Peas’ greatest hits, and (much to my chagrin) these earworms are just as catchy, if not more so, and not as dumb.
The performances—as well as the production from longtime partner in crime Michael Philip Wojewoda—outshine many of the actual songs, most of which are a baffling series of seemingly non-sequitur images and phrases. (There’s also a queer fondness for the word “tits.”) “I Wanna Go to Yemen,” Bidini sings—but why? “I’ve been waiting all this time to shine a light.” Is this a song about the Arab Spring? Doesn’t sound like it. And: “I want to see your face, eyeliner and burka” doesn’t make any sense when you realize that with a burka you don’t see any part of the face, never mind eyeliner. And why are there Burmese police shooting fishermen in a song also about a “two-bit Neil Young rip-off attack”? No matter: that latter track, “Last of the Dead Wrong Things,” is one of the most fantastic four minutes of visceral rock’n’roll Bidini has ever recorded. (Hear it here.)
And so Bidiniband’s literacy is not so much lyrical as it is musical; the real thrills here are listening to Linklater’s persistent fretboard wizardry, the throbbing, pummelling yet soulful grooves of the rhythm section of ex-Rheo Don Kerr and bassist Doug Friesen, and Bidini’s own underrated rhythm guitar skills. (Here’s your next bar argument: is there any essential rock’n’roll instrument more undervalued than rhythm guitarists? They don’t even get their own set of jokes.)
On John K. Samson’s solo album, his lyrics are the sole focus of attention; the accompanying music is mere background. He’s a prose writer first and foremost; every image and phrase is pondered over until it’s just perfect, yet there is no laboriousness heard in any single lyric. Though the ever-modest Samson will tell you that his vocal range and guitar skills are limited—hey, so is Leonard Cohen’s—he writes tiny perfect melodies and enlists trusted collaborators to fill in all the blanks.
Here, producer Paul Aucoin (Hylozoists, Cuff the Duke) casts Samson solo against just a horn section, in folk-country modes, as a piano balladeer, and—less successfully—in situations not unlike the Weakerthans. Those latter tracks are the only times when the otherwise impeccable Provincial manages to stumble. Even though the hired guns are no slouches (including Bidiniband bassist Doug Friesen and Constantines drummer Doug MacGregor), Samson already fronts an incredible rock band—anything else is going to sound second-rate. His solo work should stand further apart.
On the first single “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” Samson steps into self-parody: any songwriter beloved by legions of English grad students is probably tempted to write a title like that all the time, but I’m not sure even Colin Meloy (Decemberists) would get away with that. Samson’s most successful narratives here are much better off set to delicately arranged downers like “The Last And,” “Stop Error,” or (a typical Samson title) “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San.”
As Samson sounds older (or, more accurately, his age), Bidini sounds more youthful; both promise their fans even bolder moves in the future.
Bidiniband's Toronto release show is this Saturday, January 28, at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto, 7 p.m. More dates are here.
John K. Samson was just in Toronto; Chromewaves wrote about it here. His North American tour begins on March 7 at the Grad Club in Kingston.