Monday, October 20, 2014

Canadian songbook: Zunior, Oh Susanna, Grey Lands

Canada has always been known as a songwriters’ nation, ever since the days of Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and the rest of Yorkville scored hits via covers of their songs, even before their own careers took off. (You should read about this scene in Jason Schneider's excellent book Whispering Pines.) And yet, we rarely celebrate our modern songbook: for all the camaraderie and cross-pollination our best artists do, they rarely, if ever, cover each other’s work.

Earlier this year, Montreal songwriter Michael Feuerstack enlisted a bunch of his considerably more famous friends to cover some of his songs. Geoff Berner did the same thing, assembling a tribute album to himself to help launch his first novel. This fall, Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker, Cuff the Duke’s Wayne Petti and Oh Susanna continue the trend, covering their favourite songs and songwriters. (See reviews, below.)

Three years ago, I assembled a compilation of my favourite modern artists covering Canadian songs from 1985-95, a time period covered in my co-authored book, Have Not Been the Same. It’s an amazing record. Kevin Drew. Corb Lund. Hidden Cameras. Bry Webb. Great Lake Swimmers. Jill and Matthew Barber. The Burning Hell. Jim Bryson. Forest City Lovers. Cuff the Duke. Mark Davis. Selina Martin. Light Fires. Snailhouse. Veda Hille. Andrew Vincent. Geoff Berner. Bruce Peninsula’s Neil Haverty. Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. You should buy it. All proceeds go to CAMH.

I chose to put out that compilation via Zunior, the online record label and e-retailer run by the Inbreds’ Dave Ullrich. For 10 years now, he’s been selling independent Canadian music at decent prices (albums are $8.88), paying artists much more than they’d make through iTunes or other American outlets. All the major and minor indies are there: Arts and Crafts, Paper Bag, Constellation, Nettwerk, Kelp, Mint, Secret City, Six Shooter, Sonic Unyon, Weewerk, You’ve Changed, White Whale, Flemish Eye, and much more—even Jagjaguwar, a U.S. label with plenty of Canucks on it. If you buy indie Canadian music, you should buy it from Zunior. It’s also Stuart McLean’s preferred retailer; all his Vinyl CafĂ© products are available there.

Zunior also curates new compilations, usually around Christmas: one year featured its artists covering the Charlie Brown Christmas album in its entirety. This year, however, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Zunior put out a cookbook, organized a festival, and commissioned a comic book. Zunior also got their BFF Tony Dekker, of Great Lake Swimmers, to cover some of his favourite Canadian songs of the last 10 years. The result? It’s almost as good as my album. ;)

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record last month.

Tony Dekker – Sings 10 Years of Zunior (Zunior)

Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker has always tossed out oddball covers that counter his reputation as a sad-eyed, dreamy crooner. (Perhaps you once heard him on CBC Radio covering the Dead Kennedys’ satirical classic “Kill the Poor.”) Here, he celebrates the anniversary of Zunior; their 10 years as a business happen to coincide with an incredible decade of Canadian music, and so Dekker has plenty of incredible material to choose from.

Other than Chad Van Gaalen and Martin Tielli, neither of whose work is much different than Dekker’s day job, Dekker goes for the underdogs: Christine Fellows, The Burning Hell, Rae Spoon, Old Man Luedecke, Ohbijou. He also gives two nods to Guelph, covering Jim Guthrie’s “3AM” and Jenny Omnichord’s “Growing Too.” The one WTF moment is a silly and strange cover of Cadence Weapon’s “Do I Miss My Friends”—you may not think Tony Dekker should be rapping, and maybe he shouldn’t, but it has to be heard to be believed.

Dekker could have made this record in his sleep; he didn’t. He invests the same time and care he would on one of his own records; it’s obvious this is a complete labour of love. It’s also essential listening not just for Great Lake Swimmers, but for anyone who cares about the Canadian songbook. Your favourite acts of the last 10 years didn’t, with few exceptions, rise in isolation. They came from a community, and this is one man’s version of what that community sounded like. I can’t think of a better man for the job .

Download: “At the Airport” (Old Man Luedecke), “My Sweet Relief” (Martin Tielli), “The Woods” (Ohbijou)

Oh Susanna – Namedropper (Sonic Unyon)

For her sixth album, Oh Susanna commissioned her many talented friends to write songs for her, enlisting Joel Plaskett, Jim Cuddy, Ron Sexsmith and more. How could she go wrong?

She can’t. She enlisted producer Jim Bryson—who also happens to trump everyone else here by penning the album’s highlight and opening track, “Oregon”—and some of the songwriters into her backing band (as well as Kathleen Edwards, who, sadly, doesn’t contribute a song). Perhaps it goes without saying that Plaskett writes the album’s other surefire classic, “Into My Arms.” Amelia Curran, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke and Royal Wood also stand out; Jay Harris’s “1955” has one of the catchiest melodies but some of the most unfortunate lyrics (it’s a peppy love song with the chorus: “Your love’s like suicide/ the kind of love you can only buy / 1955.” What do those three things have to do with each other, and why are they set to a country-rock anthem?)

Dropping names, stacking the deck, and being shameless about it—no harm in that, especially with company like this.

Download: “Oregon,” “Into My Arms,” “Mozart for the Cat”

Grey Lands – Songs by Other People (Paper Bag)

Grey Lands is a new solo project for Cuff the Duke’s Wayne Petti; the title of the debut album is self-explanatory. Here, Petti dips into psychedelic country in ways I’d been hoping he would ever since Cuff the Duke’s still-stunning 2002 debut album. Even though he’s doing it by covering some obvious songs—Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (with Greg Keelor) and “Girl From the North Country” (with Joel Plaskett), even Sloan’s “Coax Me” (with Mike O’Neill)—he also digs deep to find obscurity’s like Jim Sullivan’s “UFO” and Lee Hazlewood’s “Sand” (with Sarah Harmer), and puts his own distinct stamp on each one. Whether or not Grey Lands starts including Petti’s own songs or not, the sound he gets here is well worth sticking with.

Download: “Outta My Head” (feat. Hayden), “My Back Pages” (feat. Greg Keelor), “Sand” (feat. Sarah Harmer)

All three titles are available from

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you're going to "quote" a song's lyrics. Quote them correctly. "19 and 55". Hint its a lust song, and involves an older women "and her young guy". Pretty straight-up really

Its an unfortunate review of a good song/album

Jay Harris’s “1955” has one of the catchiest melodies but some of the most unfortunate lyrics (it’s a peppy love song with the chorus: “Your love’s like suicide/ the kind of love you can only buy / 1955.” What do those three things have to do with each other, and why are they set to a country-rock anthem?)