Friday, December 19, 2014

Not so fully, not so completely

The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (Universal)

In 1993, The Tragically Hip had a feverish fan base, two classic rock’n’roll albums behind them and a reputation as the best live band in the country. It was time to catapult into the big leagues: Fully Completely accomplished that. It also shaped everything the band has done ever since.

They still play more songs from Fully Completely than from any other Hip release, and this isn’t a band that routinely pulls out other obvious fan favourites. These are songs the band clearly delights in playing: “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Courage,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” the title track. And yet, as someone who was electrified by this band in its earliest days, I remember that Fully Completely sounded hollow and empty to me in 1993. Obviously, I was an outlier then—but in 2014, even with a boss remastering job, I still feel the same way. Where is the “machine-revving tension” heard in their live shows, then or now?

We find out in the liner notes to this box set (which includes the remastered original album, a live set from 1992 and the long-lost tour film Heksenketel). As was the standard of the day, producer Chris Tsangarides (Judas Priest, Concrete Blonde) recorded all the instruments in isolation: this was not the sound of a band with 1,001 nights in dingy bars behind them. It sounds like Def Leppard. It’s incredible that singer Gord Downie sounds as impassioned as he does, considering the unusually leaden rhythms behind him. You only need to compare the limp studio version of the title track with the live version heard here—or, for that matter, at any time on stage in the last two decades. Even though the end result was their bestselling album, one senses from present-day quotes in the notes that even the band themselves aren’t totally thrilled with the recording. (Maybe I wasn’t such an outlier.)

It’s not the band’s worst record, of course. There are far too many glimpses of greatness here for that, both musically and lyrically; no, the Hip’s worst record would likely be something from the early 2000s, when they sounded most adrift. And to Tsangarides’s credit, there is at least a sense of dynamics heard on Fully Completely that you’d be hard pressed to hear in any other arena rock records of the day.

If you’re a sentimental Hip fan, the live disc is more than worth your while, featuring the entire album getting its Canadian debut at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. This is where the songs come alive, played by a still-hungry young band, with a typically cryptic Downie throwing in
references to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the middle of songs (“It was I who killed the pawnbroker!”). He’s also at his lyrical height, debunking American myths, exonerating the falsely accused, saluting Jacques Cartier and Hugh MacLellan. And drummer Johnny Fay doesn’t sound like a soulless robot on loan from late-’80s Aerosmith, which he does on the studio album.

The time-capsule Heksenketel, shot on grainy video by Mike Downie (Gord’s brother), is, on the surface, a terrible film, to be endured by serious fans only. In a very modest, deflationary and Canadian way, it spends as much time with the crew of the Another Roadside Attraction tour than it does The Tragically Hip: we learn more about Gord Downie’s bus driver than we do Gord Downie. Vive le proletariat! We hear more about the logistics of travelling summer festivals than we do the art that fuels them—sadly, not from manager Jake Gold (who doesn’t appear at all), who might have brought a John Phillips-like presence to this Canadian take on a travelling Monterey Pop. Instead, we learn how local security crews scan for booze in pop bottles and what shifts are like for guys setting up trusses for the stage.

We do, however, get to see David Milgaard, the wrongly convicted subject of “Wheat Kings,” watch the band sing his story of exoneration to thousands of people in his hometown. And we do get to see truly explosive performances of “Blow at High Dough” and “Fully Completely” in front of rabid fans in Montreal.

After peaking with this album and tour, the Hip purposely lifted their foot off the pedal, which resulted in the murky, mysterious—and often magical—Day for Night in 1994. Then Downie started playing acoustic guitar with the band on stage, dialling down the energy level onstage considerably. They had discovered what it took to play up to everyone’s expectations of them, and decided they’d rather head somewhere else instead—always looking for a place to happen, and on their own terms.

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