Bidiniband – The Motherland (Pheromone)
How angry is too angry? When you kick ass, must you also take names?
Writing political music is never easy. Precious few do it well, fewer still do so by employing specifics; those that do risk being relegated to time capsules (hello, Phil Ochs). Even the most virulent songs about Margaret Thatcher—during one of the most fertile periods in British pop music history—didn’t usually mention her by name.
But boy, is Dave Bidini ever pissed—and it’s crystal clear who’s pissing him off. Like the rest of us, he’s been living under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for the past eight years; unlike most of the rest of us—who give Harper more votes in every election—Bidini can’t bear to withstand what he sees as the rampant destruction of the country he loves dearly. “All hail Canada,” he sings. “We’re number one in all the things the world believes we used to represent.”
The Motherland is a concept album—or maybe it’s just still unusual, even in our post-Stompin’ Tom landscape, for a Canadian artist to write an entire series of songs about the state of our nation and signs of the times. Bidini knows that he’s now an elder statesman in an industry that doesn’t favour veterans: “The world is 18, but I’m a has-been or never, nor ever, nor was.” As a result, there’s a tiny bit of grumpy grandpa at work here—except that for better or worse, Bidini writes with the bite and bile of youth, subtlety be damned. The man is 50 years old; he’s angrier about corporate agendas and environmental devastation than most 20-year-old songwriters are. And he’s probably angry about that, too. (He should be.)
His aim is true. The question is whether the songs are as strong as his intent.
“All Hail Canada” is a prime example: musically, it boasts the strongest melody here, and his band is on fire. Lyrically, it opens with two lines that sum up the entire record: “I hate to think that everything could disappear in four small years / but you and me won’t ever see what lurks behind their dark veneer.” Yet Bidini then almost completely regresses to the amateurism of a pamphleteering protest singer with the chorus: “All hail Canada / we know what’s best / the only country but the States to not sign the Kyoto Accord.” A valid point, yes—but it might well be the clunkiest, arrhythmic line by a great writer ever since Billy Bragg—who usually knows much better—decided to frame a chorus around the phrase “no power without accountability.” Sadly, it’s not the only line like that in that song.
Does this matter? Don’t times like these almost demand a blunt response? Surely I can’t lament the lack of political songwriters and then cringe slightly when someone like Bidini calls it like he sees it. I also can’t worry about whether or not these songs will stand up to scrutiny five or 10 years from now; that’s a classic pitfall of rock dudes who are always quick to dismiss something as a fad or a trifle if they think it’s not something “that’s going to last” (see also: rock dudes’ treatment of ephemeral pop and dance music in general).
There’s zero question about the band behind him: wiz guitarist Paul Linklater, drummer Don Kerr and bassist Doug Friesen can do anything, and Bidini remains a highly underrated rhythm guitarist. He’s also a prolific prose writer; not surprisingly, there are moments of both beauty and effective bile here (“The Grey Wave” and “The Fatherland,” respectively). “Ladies of Montreal” is a wonderfully silly romp exoticizing the Québécoises, with guest vocalist Selina Martin rhapsodizing about “le vin, le pot en p’tites culottes.” “Say the Names” sets an Al Purdy poem to a lilting rhythm, a trio of angelic female voices and a trumpet solo; it’s the loveliest thing Bidini has done since the dissolution of the Rheostatics.
At a time when almost no one is writing political songs—in a hyper-politicized age, no less—I want Dave Bidini to succeed. I’d love Bidiniband to back up Kyp Harness (check his new Armageddon Blues) or collaborate with Bob Wiseman or just start a movement with Geoff Berner and John K. Samson and Tanya Tagaq and Kinnie Starr and Freedom Writers and anyone else who has several dozen bones to pick with the federal government. The Motherland is not the record to do that, but that doesn’t mean Bidini and everyone else should ever stop trying to write songs this country deserves. Dave Bidini, being who he is, is never going to stop. (This review ran in the Waterloo Record, July 3)
Download: “The Fatherland,” “Ladies of Montreal,” “Say the Names”