Geoff Berner – Canadiana Grotesquica (Coax)
What happens when a klezmer artist makes a country record? Geoff Berner has certainly posed more unusual questions over the course of his 17-year recording career. The Vancouver accordionist and acerbic singer-songwriter is a satirist of the highest order, one capable of extracting hilarity from horrors and providing the most emotionally complex evening of music you’re likely to encounter at a live show.
On his seventh album, Berner shifts away from his klezmer escapades and taps Neko Case guitarist Paul Rigby to make something approximately a country record, filled with the kinds of songs that made him a favourite cover choice for his friends the Be Good Tanyas and Corb Lund. It’s the most musically conservative album he’s made in years, but it’s by no means meant to be easy listening.
It opens with “The Ghost of Terry Fox,” one of the most tragic tales in Canadian celebrity: the story of Steve Fonyo, the cancer-stricken amputee who actually completed Fox’s mission, but suffered from second-banana syndrome in the eyes of an indifferent public, racked up several criminal convictions, was stripped of his Order of Canada, and was the victim of a home invasion in Surrey, B.C. Fonyo was the subject of a 2015 Alan Zweig documentary, and a musical by Berner, from which this song originates. Berner takes a similarly biographical approach to “Gino Odjick,” a song about the Vancouver Canucks’ “Algonquin Assassin,” an on-ice enforcer and residential school survivor who, along with other prominent Indigenous Canadians, met the Pope to hear an apology from the Catholic Church.
On a lighter note, Berner mocks southern Ontario country singers who articulate with a “Phoney Drawl,” and warns his peers “Don’t Play Cards For Money With Corby Lund.” “Hustle Advisory” references Leonard Cohen, Jesus, and Justin Trudeau, and features Frazey Ford on backing vocals.
There’s no surer sign of Berner’s continued songwriting strength than “Super Subtle Folk Song,” written during yet another summer of wildfires in B.C. and pipeline debates across the country, in which Berner sings: “My brother was being torn apart by panthers / So I bought a bunch of panthers as pets / My dad was dying of lung cancer / so I bought my kids a carton of cigarettes / Future kin will say we were assholes / we were just trying to fit into our scene / And while the fire’s still burning / let’s make a bunch more gasoline.” That he does so with one of the catchiest melodies on a record full of earworms ensures that the message sinks in. More important, for a man who has often used a blunt hammer to make his point, titling a track “Super Subtle Folk Song” may be a self-deprecating jab, but it also proves that Berner is stronger when he’s subversive.
Stream: “The Ghost of Terry Fox,” “Super Subtle Folk Song,” “Gino Odjick”