Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jim Guthrie's Twenty Years and Thousand Songs

Jim Guthrie released his first cassette 20 years ago. I was living in Guelph, Ontario, and had a campus radio show; so did he. He was friends with Aaron Riches and Nathan Lawr and Nick Craine; so was I. But we didn’t know each other, and I didn’t know his music. Four years later I heard 1999’s A Thousand Songs, which compiled tracks from four self-released cassettes. Now, of course, the world has recognized the genius of Jim Guthrie, a book has been written about him (Who Needs What, by Andrew Hood, out this month on Invisible Publishing), and the label that was formed to release A Thousand Songs, Three Gut Records, is universally acknowledged as a catalyst to the sea change in Canadian music that made the likes of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire possible (both those bands—of course—are big Jim Guthrie fans).

But at the time, I thought something along the lines of: “Who is this time-frozen freak who wants to stay home and listen to Mel Tormé, rides bikes without chains halfway around the world, and has dreams of dirty fingernails? The guy who’s as ridiculous as Ween but as heartbreaking as Elliott Smith but with more bottom end and soul than either (‘shit yeah, I can dance’), is he some kind of lo-fi Lindsey Buckingham hooked on video games, subsisting on a diet of something known only as ‘curry toast’? Is this what would have happened if Paul McCartney ditched Wings to join German weirdoes Can? Did some tracks from a Ry Cooder soundtrack for Wim Wenders get thrown on here by mistake? Seriously, what the fuck is going on? There’s no way this could be the sound of a small-town guy who only picked up a guitar a year or two ago.”

And yet it was. And it was magical. And it was leaps and bounds ahead of anyone I’d heard in Guelph—or anywhere else. “Hey there, High Fidelity record-store clerks, I see your Beta Band’s Three EPs and I raise you A Thousand Songs. Get ready to fold.” Before I heard Guthrie’s music, I assumed his pals were hyperbolic when they hyped his genius, or were at least merely using the local teen punk scene as a low-bar benchmark. They weren’t.

There are tracks on A Thousand Songs where Guthrie sounds like Carl Sagan trapped in a black hole with Blade Runner synths swirling around him, or perhaps like one of Alvin’s chipmunks fucking around with a toy piano. There are times when he gets downright slinky (“Sexy Drummer,” “Wear in the World”) and even freaks out for the DJ booth (“Focus on Floor Care,” which should have been a 12” on Ninja Tune). Some tracks should be on a Hal Hartley soundtrack. Or Friday Night Lights. Many are full of interruptions: a phone ringing, the sounds of schoolkids next door, even a toilet flushing. A Thousand Songs conflates tiny moments of perfection and imperfection and dares you to tell the difference. It’s profound and profane. Most of all, it’s profoundly curious. Sometimes it’s just a guy screaming into a crappy microphone: “Wama-lama-ding-dong-wooooo-EEEEEE—woooo!!!!” Much like life itself.

Since then, Guthrie has released three more proper albums (Morning Noon NightNow More Than EverTakes Time) and written plenty more material for ad agencies (“Hands in My Pocket”), indie films (Indie Game: The Movie), and odd collaborations (the most high-profile being Human Highway, a duo with superfan—and soundalike—Nick Thorburn of the Unicorns and Islands). His work for video games like Sword and Sworcery have introduced him to a whole new audience; old fans will be surprised to learn that his gaming work is infinitely more popular than any of these classic albums he’s re-releasing now.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first cassette—which included “I Don’t Wanna Be a Rock Star”—Guthrie is giving A Thousand Songs a re-release on 180-gram double vinyl with updated artwork. But that is not all—oh no, that is not all. With it comes a Bandcamp download code for 11 new re-recordings of songs from the album, made with his current live band and recorded by long-time confidant Andy Magoffin. This summer, Guthrie will also make available on Bandcamp all four of his early cassettes (only select material made it onto A Thousand Songs): Home is Where the Rock IsVictim of Lo-FiDocumenting Perks Part 1Some Things You Should Know About Sound and Hearing). Finally, Who Needs What author Andrew Hood has compiled his own mix tape as a companion to the biography, available as a download with purchase of the book: it’s a career-spanning mix of Guthrie’s greatest non-hits of the past 20 years, including a full version of his Capital One ad, “Hands in My Pocket,” never before available. Indeed: who needs what? Take what you want, take what you need.

Twenty years on, A Thousand Songs no longer seems like such an aspirational, grandiose title after all.

Full disclosure: Jim Guthrie commissioned me to write this, offering to pay me in yet-to-be-determined culinary and vinyl treats, grooming tips, and a promise to never talk to me about cats. He's written his own thoughts on all of this noise here

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