Thursday, December 16, 2021

Best of 2021

I didn't review records this year; I was busy writing Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music 2000-05 (out in April 2022!). But I didn't stop listening to everything I could, and I was never bored. 

Not ranked this year, other than into tiers. 

Bandcamp links where possible; please support your favourite artists.

Tidal playlist:


Spotify playlist:

Tier 1: #1-10 (alphabetical)

 Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam). This Pakistani-American singer has made a gorgeous record that’s a beguiling amalgam of Dorothy Ashby, Sheila Chandra and Owen Pallett. Dedicated to her late brother and another lost friend, the “neo-Sufi” album is beyond haunting, whether she’s singing in Urdu or English. Right in the middle she drops “Last Night,” an acoustic reggae song comparing her beloved to lunar majesty. Read a P4K profile here


Altin Gun – Yol (ATO). A Turkish-Dutch psych-pop band that lean more Talking Heads than Tame Impala? Yes, please. This band blew me away live a few years ago, and each record is better than the last. Every player is essential, the rhythm section is killer, and the new-wave synths are a nice touch alongside the Fuzzy guitars, Balkan scales and male-female vocals. In yet another bleak year, this January release was a constant source of sunshine.


Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days (Elektra). I’m not ranking anything this year, but this is the album I listened to the most compulsively after it came out, the album that sent me to a piano to learn all the songs (not something I do often). I admired Carlile before, but hearing a 40-year-old woman knock it out of the park on her seventh album is beyond inspirational. This is one of the great mainstream singer-songwriter albums of the last two decades; it’s that fucking good. Opening track “Right on Time” is a total show-stopper, both as a song and a vocal performance—but she’s only warming up. Every song here is a stone-cold classic. And did you see her on SNL? Holy shit.



Cochemea – Vol. II: Baca Sewa (Daptone). His record label calls him “the Dap-Kings’ electro-sax space warrior.” Sounds about right. On this album of mostly just saxophone and percussion, with occasional help from the Dap-Kings’ rhythm section, Cochemea taps his Indigenous Mexican-American roots to create a swampy brew with faint echoes of Dr. John’s Gris Gris and the quality control that Daptone brings to everything it puts out. 



Delvon Lamarr Trio – I Told You So (Colemine). Move over, Khruangbin, there’s a new instrumental trio on the scene, and this one is not chill. This one, from Seattle, channels New Orleans legends the Meters almost effortlessly—no small feat. This is a whip-tight funk band led by an organist and featuring a jazz guitarist; miraculously, there’s no bassist. Even the cheeseball ’80s cover totally works, in part because the original material around it is so strong.



Daniel Lanois – Heavy Sun (Maker Series). The Hamilton producer goes to church: a church in Shreveport, Louisiana, specifically, where the father of drummer Brian Blade preaches. One day Lanois and Blade heard the church organist, Johnny Shepherd, and insisted on making a record with him. Praise Jesus, they did. Heavy Sun is a gorgeous, gospel-soaked album centred around Shepherd’s voice and B-3 Hammond organ playing, while masters Lanois and Blade are joined by their regular bandmates, bassist Jim Wilson and guitarist Rocco DeLuca for gorgeous harmony singing. I’ve been a Lanois fan for decades now, so trust me when I say this is his greatest solo record, second only to Acadie. One could argue, however, that Shepherd deserves equal billing.


Low Hey What (Sub Pop). I listened to more Low than any other artist in 2020, their music offering the ideal mix of extremes: the beauty I craved and the discomfort I felt. Going through their whole discography made me appreciate the last three records they made with producer BJ Burton even more: 2016’s gorgeous Ones and Sixes (my favourite), the profoundly strange Double Negative in 2018, and now Hey What, which pulls back somewhere between those two poles. Every year at this time you’re likely to hear their version of “Little Drummer Boy” cutting through the usual dreck; if you haven’t checked in Low in a while, it’s never been a better time.



Mustafa – When Smoke Rises (Regent Park Songs). “Stay Alive” is the opening track here—and it’s not a metaphor. When Smoke Rises is about the losses Mustafa has witnessed through gun violence in his Toronto neighbourhood, and about a resilient community awash in grief. A child prodigy who’s releasing his debut album at the age of 25. Worth the wait. Though Mustafa first made his name in Toronto as a poet, he has a gorgeous singing voice, and the music owes more of a debt to Sufjan Stevens than my inherently racist assumptions led me to expect. His first headlining hometown gig? At the newly reopened Massey Hall, where he was the third performer to take the stage after Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Now that’s a baller move. Too bad Toronto police deemed it a “high-security event” and installed airport-level security outside the venue, while Mustafa himself wore a backwards bulletproof vest on stage as a fashion statement. All of which is to say: This is a stunning album, an astounding debut, and something you absolutely must hear. 



Allison Russell – Outside Child (Fantasy Records). Speaking of Brandi Carlile’s mid-career excellence, this was a breakthrough year for one of Carlile’s favourites: Montreal-Vancouver-Chicago-Nashville singer/songwriter Allison Russell. Canadian folk festival attendees might know Russell from Po’ Girl in the 2000s (with Be Good Tanya Trish Klein) or with Birds of Chicago. The latter band’s JT Nero is a big part of this record, but it’s very much Russell’s story to tell: these are at-times harrowing personal stories, dressed up in the velvet glove of Russell’s luxurious voice. There are some Al Green grooves, some Lucinda Williams twang, some Norah Jones comfort, and some of Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball: this is the very definition of what’s called Americana. You can listen to this record devoid of context and find it lovely; once you listen closer, it’s profoundly moving. 



Yu Su – Yellow River Blue (Yi She Yi Se). This Chinese-Canadian world traveller made perfect music for a microdosing summer (see also: K.D.A.P.’s Influences). Opening track “Xiu” layers Chinese instrumentation over a Neu groove and Colleen-esque layers. There’s some sparse electro-dub, some Four Tet-ian psychedelia, and even some Prince-like Linn drums on “Meleleuca.” This is a fascinating sonic journey from a restless spirit.



Tier 2: #11-20 (alphabetical)


Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d's Pee at State's End (Constellation). Don’t take this band for granted. Yes, it’s largely the same bag of tricks they’ve explored for the past 25 years, but they’ve never sounded as sonically fierce as they do here, thanks mostly to engineer Jace Lasek. Godspeed is always more hopeful than they’re given credit for—even though they literally spell it out in their stage visuals—and this album arrived at the perfect moment in time. (See also: Fly Pan Am’s Frontera.)



Geordie Gordon – The Tower (Victory Pool). Perhaps you’ve seen Geordie Gordon in U.S. Girls, Islands and many other Toronto/Montreal/Guelph acts in the last 15 years. This is his first solo album, and at times he sounds like an unusually good synth-lounge act of the early ’80s. Drum machines that sound lifted from old organs, vintage keys with modern synths delivering one soft-rock gem after another, with some seriously strong songwriting at the core. Also remarkable is Gordon’s constantly developing vocal range; having seen him perform since he was a teenager, I’m never not amazed at the singer he’s become.



Arushi Jain – Under the Lilac Sky (Leaving). This Indian composer and singer, now based in San Francisco, plays ragas using only modular synths—which are helpful to get at microtonality unavailable on most Western instruments. This material was composed for a sunset performance on a rooftop near the Rajasthan desert; it sounds like it. Close your eyes and you might as well be there. More info here



Rochelle Jordan – Play with the Changes (Royal Mountain). This L.A.-via-Toronto singer channels vintage Neneh Cherry or what the post-drum’n’bass Brits called “garage,” but I don’t remember any of that music from more than 20 years ago sounding this good (no disrespect to Cherry, who continues to be awesome). Jordan is a wispy vocal presence, yet effective—and just in time for the Janet Jackson renaissance. This is the kind of club record lush enough to feel like a warm bath. Luxurious.



Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be an Introvert (Awal). This rap album opens with martial drums, big symphonic brass and a choir, before breaking into a nylon guitar riff over a Questlove-worthy beat while a string section swells. Ambitious? Yep. But this British MC can do anything she puts her mind to—except, maybe, maintain our interest through way too many “interludes,” what used to be called skits (why is that still a thing?!). The production here is once again by Inflo, the man behind Sault (whose Cleo Sol appears here) and Michael Kiwanuka; he also pops up on the new Adele. If Little Simz wasn’t the charisma magnet she is (not unlike Haviah Mighty), she’d be in jeopardy of being overshadowed by Inflo. But this is a perfect meeting of the minds.



Madlib – Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion). This producer has likely more than 100 releases to his name over the last 20 years. After the landmark 2004 Madvillain album, where to start? Right here. Combining his love of jazz and obtuse samples with his post-J Dilla beat innovation, this is an album assembled with the help of Four Tet, who brings focus to the usually scattered genius. 



Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime (Matador). There are many artists on this list I would have loved to have seen live this year, but I do regret that I have yet to have my face melted off by the electric guitar wizardry of this Nigerien master. Especially now that he has a large North American indie behind him. Is this album better or worse than its predecessor? Who cares? Turn it up and surrender.



Serena Ryder – The Art of Falling Apart (Arthaus). It seems weird that a woman with big radio hits here in Canada would be so critically underrated. But did I read anything, anywhere about this record? One of the most naturally gifted pop singers working today, her writing keeps improving, and this record is full of affirmational earworms—“Waterfall,” “Kid Gloves,” “Better Now,” for starters—that hit me right in the gut during a most difficult year. This record should be mentioned in the same breath as Adele or Olivia Rodrigo or Brandi Carlile—it’s that good. 



Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – Theory of Ice (You’ve Changed). The first time I heard this record was walking on a frozen lake in Simpson’s general vicinity (near Peterborough, Ontario), a vivid experience I relive every time I put this on. Simpson is an acclaimed poet and writer; this is her first album. A singer, she’s not—and that’s not the point (though she’s just ever so slightly AMSR for my taste). If Laurie Anderson were an Indigenous Ontario folk musician, she might make a record like this. Musical textures from sister Ansley and producer Jim Bryson bring her words to life, giving them further depth and colour. A cover of Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country” is essential listening in 2021, but doesn’t overshadow anything Simpson does on her own. 



Suzie Ungerleider – My Name Is (Stella). Ungerleider recorded for almost 25 years as Oh Susanna, so this is a bit of a rebirth. And what a way to make a mark: this is easily one of her best records, if not a career high (so far). If she’s new to you, she’s a short-story lyricist with an exceptional sense of melody, not unlike a folkier Aimee Mann, writing perfect character sketches like “Mount Royal” or “Summerbaby” or the devastating “Disappear,” about a child hiding from an abusive parent. Oh, and there’s a song here with the chorus “hearts on fire” which also happens to be the title of an amazing book out next April. Just FYI. 



Tier 3: #21-30 (alphabetical)

Cadence Weapon – Parallel World (eOne). The most heartening thing about Cadence Weapon’s Polaris prize win this year wasn’t that the mid-career musician finally copped it (after two shortlists and two longlists), but that he was just as weird as he’d always been—musically, that is, which proves that the world is catching up to him. Lyrically, he’s more direct here than he’s ever been in his career, and tough times call for straight talk. 



Theon Cross – Intra-I. Theon Cross plays tuba in Sons of Kemet, a band credited with spearheading much of Britain’s current jazz revival. That band’s prolific saxophonist, Shabaka Hutchings, deservedly gets most of the attention. But Cross’s second solo album—yes, the tuba player’s solo album!—bettered his main project this year, by delving into dubby electronics, hip-hop, cinematic soundscapes and anywhere else a tuba is not normally supposed to go.



Eris Drew – Quivering in Time (independent). Very little electronic music ever makes me want to dance in a dark club packed with people—especially now. But this album does. Apparently it was crafted in a rural New Hampshire cabin where, during the pandemic, Drew would broadcast DJ sets held in a nearby clearing. With shades of Chicago house and early ’90s rave with deep bass, actual funk, and constantly intriguing samples and shifting textures, this is a dense delight. 



Equiknoxx – Basic Tools Mixtape (independent). This Jamaican production team began in dancehall but now go wherever they want, and the weirder the better: like Tricky took an American R&B artist to make a record in Kingston and only rolled tape between 2 and 4 a.m. This is murky, muggy, swampy music—and it’s glorious. The vocalists are a welcome presence, but the instrumental versions speak just as loudly. 



Greg Keelor – Share the Love (Warner Canada). The Blue Rodeo co-lead has put out several solo albums; this is easily the best since his debut, Gone. Recorded and then re-recorded live for a video promo, Keelor decided to scrap the original and go with the live performance. An ace band (including drummer Glenn Milchelm and Peterborough singer/songwriter Melissa Payne) that was likely pent up from months of pandemic isolation pour their hearts into Keelor’s music, which teeters between melancholic and morose as it grapples with gratitude, death and heartbreak.



Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Tim Russell – The Marfa Tapes (Sony). Note: it’s not a “campfire record” unless there’s an actual fucking campfire. Which there is here: this is as unplugged as it gets, other than the recording equipment—which may well have been a smartphone, by the sound of it. It’s like Michelle Shocked’s Texas Campfire Tapes, except instead of a young, unknown folk singer, we’re eavesdropping on three of the biggest names in modern country music. Okay, I’ll admit I was only familiar with Lambert, but Ingram has had No. 1 hits, and Russell is a hitmaking songwriter and producer. Here, the three of them pass the acoustic guitar and harmonize exquisitely. There’s offside conversation, crackling fire, and at least once you can hear Lambert say, “Beautiful!” Which it absolutely is. 


Salomé Leclerc – Mille ouvrages mon coeur (Audiogramme). Snowy-day franco melancholy rarely gets better than this—except when Leclerc ramps up the drama with lush strings and Velvet-y rhythms. (See also: Myriam Gendron’s Ma Delire.) 



Olivia Rodrigo – Sour (Geffen). Being a 50-year-old man, I’m not the target demo for this teenage Disney actress who sings about getting her driver’s licence. But goddammit, she’s good. She’s got a Broadway voice, co-writes a collection of earworms, and while she’s very much rooted in modern pop idioms, opening track “Brutal” betrays a lineage from Joan Jett to Liz Phair to Courtney Barnett—so, right up my alley. How good is she? Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff show up for a co-write—and it’s one of the weaker tracks here. The rest of the album shows immense dynamic range, from big pop ballads to rockers (“Good 4 U”) to acoustic numbers (“Favourite Crime”) to Lorde-ish self-awareness (“Déjà Vu”). 



John Southworth – Rialto (Tin Angel). Stay with me here: Rialto is not just a 14-song album about an insomniac who works as a driver for a writers festival and must courier a film called The History of Jazz to its premiere: apparently, it’s also a book and an eight-episode podcast performed by a cast of 25, made by a perpetual underdog with 13 albums under his belt. I’ll admit, I have no idea what’s going on here, or if Southworth has simply constructed an elaborate ruse. But the always-ambitious, hit-and-miss artist comes out swinging hard, with a strong chamber-pop record fuelled by a muscular string quartet, arranged by Andrew Downing; guest singers include the Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman, Rheostatics’ Martin Tielli and members of Bernice. It’s… something, to be sure. But I’m pretty sure it’s brilliant. 



Vanille – Soleil '96 (Bonbonbon). There were many moments this year when I just wanted simple pleasure, such as a French woman cooing in my ear over carefully arranged dreampop à la Alvvays. Which is what made this Vanille record such a tasty treat. 




Willie Dunn – Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies (Light in the Attic). I’ve been waiting years for this project, ever since Kevin Howes assembled the Native North America box in 2014. It does not disappoint. Much like the Jackie Shane reissue, it’s worth it just for the liner notes alone (both got Grammy nominations). Dunn’s rich baritone is a commanding presence, communicating painful truths through modern Canadian folk songs that deserve to be heard far and wide. Howes does exceptional archival work on all his projects; he has yet to disappoint. This is beautiful.


Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band – The 1979 Legendary No Nukes Concerts (Sony). Recorded at the arguable height of their live prowess, this is everything I could ever hope for in an archival E-Street recording, including the “Detroit Medley” that I seem to recall thrilling me on FM radio in Toronto in the early ’80s. Every time something like this surfaces I become a fan all over again.


Nancy Sinatra – Start Walkin’: 1965-76 (Light in the Attic). “How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?” Why, just fine, Ms. Sinatra, just fine. Come for “These Boots,” “Bang Bang,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Some Velvet Morning” and put on your go-go boots for 19 more brassy ’60s pop hits, with and without Lee Hazlewood.


2020 albums I listened to the most in 2021:

Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness. Reviewed here.

Sam Roberts – All of Us. Yes, I’m in my dad-rock years, and this is as good an example as any. I’ll admit I’m not a big Roberts fan outside of the occasional single, but this album really hit home and had nary a dud track—but plenty of dad tracks! (Maybe it helped that he’s one of my favourite interview subjects in my last two books.)


Lists I always read (but I didn’t before making this list):

Sean Michaels’s Said the Gramophone has been doing this for 16 years now.

Aquarium Drunkard’s list usually takes me a couple of weeks to get through and I always find fascinating new things

Same with Bandcamp’s extensive lists, this year broken into four pieces.

Dominionated is always on top of interesting new Canadian music. Here’s their fave 50.

CBC leans more to the R&B side these days on their list.

Exclaim is my alma mater. They went with Little Simz this year.

Pitchfork: congrats to the Weather Station for being the only Canadian on this year’s list

NPR: congrats to Allison Russell for being the only Canadian on this year’s list

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Polaris predictions 2021

The Polaris Music Prize is always big deal to me, but this year, I don't have a lot of time to dive deep, for myriad reasons. 

Apparently neither does anyone else: with the exception of event sponsor CBC Music (now run by Polaris founder Steve Jordan), I'm not sure I've seen a single piece anywhere analyzing the shortlist. A shortlist, by the way, that for the first time doesn't have any white men on it—coincidence? A nation's culture reveals itself by the stories it can't be bothered to tell. Are editors increasingly allergic to Polaris the less white, the more left-field it gets?! I say this every year, but why doesn't Polaris get the same media attention as the Giller prize for literature, which features just as many underdogs? 

Whether or not anyone is writing about Polaris this year, I'm happy it's championing the music that it is. 

If the shortlist was entirely up to me, a 50-year-old white man in Toronto, it would look like this:

Alias Ensemble - A Splendour of Heart
. An unbelievably gorgeous folk record, with exceptional playing and a stunning presence in singer Kelly Sloan. Available only on Bandcamp.

Kathleen Edwards - Total Freedom. Career best?

Rochelle Jordan - Play With the Changes. Retrofuturist R&B by this L.A.-via-Toronto artist, who's graduated from "most promising" to simply great. One of my favourite summer records of 2021.

Daniel Lanois - Heavy Sun. Career best?

Mustafa - When Smoke Rises. Actually on the real shortlist! See below.

Nyssa - Girls Like Me. This woman's voice is a total powerhouse: both physically and lyrically. Anthems for the new era. Few pop records in the last year have made me long for live audiences more than this one.

Allison Russell - Outside Child
. The music is deceptively gorgeous; the lyrics are chilling and haunting. An incredibly powerful record, and the one I truly wish had made the shortlist so that more people here would hear it. Russell is doing very well in her adopted hometown of Nashville, however, with the likes of Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell singing her praises—and loudly.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson - Theory of Ice. Actually on the real shortlist! See below.

Julian Taylor - The Ridge. I've long respected Taylor as a singer, guitarist and all-around good guy in the Toronto club scene. Confession: I never loved his music. But this solo record (as opposed to his eponymous band) has become his most critically acclaimed to date (beyond borders, too), and it's no surprise why. It's a beautiful acoustic folk record that would make Jim Cuddy jealous, Taylor-made for Canadian campfires.

Yu Su - Yellow River Blue. Enchanting, psychedelic Asian-Canadian electronic music that owes a small debt to Caribou (and even some Prince and Kraftwerk). In yet another year when West Coast music is left out of this discussion, this was a rare bright light (as was the equally underrated C. Diab). 


And now, briefly, the actual shortlist, voted on by 199 people other than me:

Cadence Weapon - Parallel World.

Good record. Great artist. I prefer his previous two records, but whatever. I'm really, really looking forward to his memoir, out next May. And I'm excited that the veteran artist seems to be riding a new wave of buzz, thanks in part to a more direct approach in his lyrics, tapping into the current political zeitgeist. He also just signed to Kelp Management, home of Lido Pimienta, Andy Shauf, and Ada Lea. 

The chances: Strong. Many feel that this Polaris stalwart—shortlisted for the very first prize in 2006--is long overdue, and that this is the one to take it. 
However: "their time has come" has never been a convincing argument in the Polaris jury room.

Very strong new rap artist from Toronto. Put out two EPs in 2020; the first, called, uh, 2020, is musically stronger, I think, though this one is lyrically stronger. So who knows? I'm more interested in where they're going than where they're at right now, but this record has a lot of love. As someone allergic to trap and its derivatives, I find the arrival of a young MC actually interested in funk and groove to be inspiring.

The chances: Good. Solid underdog choice.

Dominique Fils-Aime - Three Little Words.

This Quebecois artist surprised a lot of people when her 2019 album Stay Tuned appeared on that year's shortlist. I love that record, and its predecessor, Nameless. This album, the third in some kind of trilogy (the concept is not entirely clear to me), I don't enjoy as much: it seems safer, and aimed at a much wider audience, a bit too CBC Radio Two for my taste. But it's clearly working for her. I was surprised this shortlisted, but happy that she continues to be recognized: she's a major talent.

The chances: I'd say slim.

Klo Pelgag - Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs.
Beloved in Quebec. Solid record. Incredibly well crafted and orchestrated. Leaves me a bit cold; my francophone choice this year would have been Vanille (as well as the largely instrumental acts Fly Pan Am, Population II and You Doo Right). But right from the beginning I predicted this would shortlist, because it's just that good (and accessible). As poppy as Charlotte Cardin, but with a whole lot of Anna Calvi and Owen Pallett in the mix.

The chances: Fair. It's enough of a curiosity and left-field pick for anglo jurors that it has a shot. And amidst such an odd squad of competitors, it could very well rise to the top.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson - Theory of Ice.

Fantastic. First time I heard this, I listened on headphones as I walked the perimeter of a frozen Ontario lake not that far from where Simpson grew up. That sublime experience aside, this is a gorgeous record in which the sonic poetry, arranged in part by Jim Bryson, matches the lyrics by an acclaimed poet and novelist. This is one of several records this year, including Thanya Iyer and the Weather Station, that gave me flashbacks to Jane Siberry; could there be a looming Siberrenaissance?! (Sorry.) All that said, there is a sense of emotional distance and restraint here that I find slightly off-putting (and a bit ASMR). But there's no denying it's a great record. Theory of Ice also gets a big lift from Simpson's timely cover of Willie Dunn's "I Pity the Country": it's timely because of the sadly ever-relevant lyrics, but also because Kevin Howes's long-awaited Dunn retrospective, Creation Never Sleeps, came out this year to great acclaim. Simpson nails the song with a powerful arrangement (and vocals by her sister, Ansley), but by no means does it overshadow her own material. Bandcamp here

The chances: Strong. As recent years have shown, jurors are acutely interested in Indigenous voices, and Simpson's lyrical voice is incredibly strong. Part of me wants this record to win just to make Jonathan Kay angry (based on a barely-worth-mentioning Twitter fart of his last month).

Mustafa - When Smoke Rises.

Hooooooly shee-it, this is great. I'd heard the buzz about Mustafa the Poet for years; he's been in the public eye since he was 12, and has co-written songs for Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber. But I had no idea what to expect when this debut dropped (without "the Poet"). For a concept record by a Sudanese-Canadian about the death of his friend, rapper Smoke Dawg, I did not expect it to be so folkie and influenced by Joni Mitchell and Sufjan Stevens (insert my systemically racist assumptions here, about music being made in the immigrant-heavy Toronto neighbourhood of Regent Park). This record is gorgeous: the vocals, the songwriting, the guitar playing, the production, the cameo from Mercury Prize-winner Sampha (whose supple voice is remarkably similar to Mustafa's). It's what I wanted to hear from Daniel Caesar; Mustafa is an infinitely superior songwriter, and almost as good a singer. Smarter people than me with more time on their hands can explain this record better than I can right now. Here's a great article by Nick Krewen. One thing that definitely works in its favour: economy. This is a relatively brief (by today's standards) eight-song collection, without a single dud. 
Update: Read this great article by Wendy Gillis and Victoria Gibson about the ongoing grief in Regent Park—important context while listening to this record.

The chances: Excellent. This year the Polaris in general was wide open; it was unusually difficult to predict both the long list and the shortlist, but this is the one record I always knew would be in the final running, despite the fact it came out days before the deadline. I'm almost certain it will win—and I only include a qualifier in there because Polaris has been known to confound. But whether or not Mustafa wins, I will say what an awesome flex it is that his headlining Toronto debut is being held at Massey fucking Hall (on December 1, making him the third person to play the newly renovated hall after Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy Sainte-Marie). Never heard of him? Catch up now.

The OBGMs - The Ends.

Not for me. I don't get Pup, I don't get Metz, and I don't get this. If you do, then great. I might be too old for rock'n'roll at this point. But hats off to this band, which, to my knowledge, didn't even have a big profile in Toronto, never mind the rest of the country, before suddenly arriving on the Polaris shortlist. Fun trivia: Colanthony Humphrey is the younger brother of longlisted rapper Clairmont the Second, making them the first siblings in different acts to make a Polaris long list in the same year. (Shout out to Kate Killet for pointing that out.)

The chances: Slim. I don't think a young rock band will win Polaris; that hasn't happened in more than 10 years, and frankly I think it's unlikely to ever again.

Tobi - Elements Vol. 1.

Incredibly talented new artist who was deservedly longlisted for his debut album, and now shortlists with this follow-up. I preferred the debut; this one veers more toward mainstream R&B, and a singer this good certainly doesn't need AutoTune. But his pop shift manifests in otherwise entirely natural ways and hopefully will expand his audience. Tracks like "Dollas and Cents" would give Anderson.Paak a run for his money. There are many strong tracks here, but despite the massive talent on display I'm not convinced this is a stellar collection overall. Would still be happy to see him win, though. 

The chances: Fair. Depends a lot on the makeup of the jury, and how they weigh this against its most immediate analog, DijahSB—whose record is a lot more concise. 

The Weather Station - Ignorance.

Wanted to love this record. I do not love this record. I love the idea of this record. Tamara Lindeman works with great people. She's incredibly smart and articulate. And yet--this record puts me to sleep. But so do those late-period Talk Talk records everyone cooler than me loves so much, so make of that what you will. I do really like the singles here, particularly "Robber." But, even more so than the Leanne Simpson record, this record sounds ice cold (and equally ASMR). After going through a tumultuous year of raw emotion, I found it hard to connect to something this reserved. But I'm more than thrilled that Lindeman's years of hard work are paying off, rising from a thriving Toronto musical community that I've admired for years (ever since she was in Bruce Peninsula).

The chances: Good. There's a lot of love for this record, both at home and (FWIW) abroad. And the completely mystifying millenial fandom for Steely Dan and pristine, slick adult pop records with jazz players might help tilt opinion in the Weather Station's favour. Also, as with Cadence Weapon, there may well be the sentiment that after years of critical acclaim, that Tamara Lindeman's time has finally come: and not with a sympathy vote, but with the most successful record of her career. 

Zoon - Bleached Waves.

I've always hated shoegaze music, and calling it "moccasin-gaze" doesn't make it any better. This may well be the electronic Anishinaabe version of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, as some claimeither way, it's not my bag. If your musical act of deconolonization is emulating the most bland music ever made by your colonizer, is that its own sort of musical statement? No idea. The woozy title track makes me physically nauseous—which may well even be the point.

The chances: Slim. I honestly can't imagine anyone being excited about this record, but that's clearly my own bias and I'm constantly told that objectivity is dead. C'mon Polaris, shock me!

15 other non-shortlisted records I really enjoyed, and if/when I have time I'll tell you more about them, if I haven't already:

Jennifer Castle - Monarch Season
C. Diab - White Whale
Fly Pan Am - Frontera (I've finally come around)
Thanya Iyer - Kind
Yves Jarvis - Sundry Rock Song Stock (I've finally come around)
Garrys - Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
Greg Keelor - Share the Love
Population II - A la O Terre
Sam Roberts Band - All Of Us (career best?)
Serena Ryder - The Art of Falling Apart
Sagot - s/t
Vanille - Soleil '96
Donovan Woods - Without People
You Doo Right! - Don't Think You Can Escape Your Purpose

Could I make a playlist? Could, but won't. Not this year. I'm amazed I even pulled off this post. 

And of course there's a lot more on the longlist that I haven't talked about here. 

Happy listening! Congratulations to everyone who managed to stay alive and keep the lights on last year, never mind make amazing music. 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Coke Machine Glow at 20

Gord Downie's first solo record, Coke Machine Glow, came out 20 years ago. It's being treated to a deluxe double-vinyl release, with an extra disc of outtakes, and another disc of his friends and family reading excerpts from the book of poetry that accompanied the album. (In 2001, Downie insisted the book-album bundle be sold only at bookstores, not record stores, something that some booksellers still fondly remembered when I was doing my book tour in 2018.)

More information about the reissue here



Coke Machine Glow is, to me, one of the greatest things Downie ever did. I loved the people he chose to work with. I loved the songs. I loved the fact that the mainstream absolutely fucking hated this record. I wrote The Never-Ending Present, in part, because I knew most other people writing about the Tragically Hip would not give Coke Machine Glow the time of day, or treat it as anything other than a footnote. (The title of my book comes from a song on this record.) While touring the book, I was amazed to learn that there were many Hip fans who had never even heard it. On the flip side, I know there are many Coke Machine Glow fans who would never identify as Tragically Hip fans—some of whom only discovered the album after reading my book. On my book tour, I invited many local performers at each stop to play Hip and/or Downie songs at my readings. More than I would have expected picked songs from Coke Machine Glow. (Especially in Sackville. You can read my tour diaries, starting here.)

This is the chapter I wrote about Coke Machine Glow. I'm proud of the entire book, of course, but I'm particularly proud of this one. Thanks again to Kevin Hearn, Dave Clark, Julie Doiron, Dale Morningstar, José Contreras and Steven Drake for their time and their endless talents.

More information about The Never-Ending Present, which is an awesome book you should buy if you haven't already, is here

News about my new book, due out next spring, is coming soon.


Is the actor happy?

2001: Coke Machine Glow


“You must experiment. You do things in which you eliminate something which is perhaps essential, but to learn how essential it is you leave it out. The space then becomes very significant.” —Henry Moore


In 1999, Gord Downie was restless. He was tired of playing arenas. He’d been inspired by the opening acts he’d curated for Hip tours and Another Roadside Attractions. He was writing songs he knew wouldn’t fit with the Hip. He had itches that couldn’t be scratched. It was time for artistic infidelity. 


In any other band with 12 years of recording behind them, this wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s more unusual when this doesn’t happen. But inside the Tragically Hip, it was blasphemy among brothers. Several sources say that Downie’s decision came at a time of poor communication and passive aggression, and it caused a degree of discomfort for much of the next decade. When Gord started doing solo albums,” Rob Baker admitted in 2017, “none of us liked it, because he had a voice with us.” 


I put the question to Jake Gold: what led to Downie’s decision to make a solo record, and how was it received inside the band? The normally forthcoming Gold slightly paused, gave a steely glare and responded, “I’m not going to talk about that.” 


Coke Machine Glow came out in March 2001 and caused as much confusion as it did excitement. The Tragically Hip could still be heard constantly on every classic rock station in Canada; those stations did not play Coke Machine Glow, with its dirgey country songs and poetry set to soundscapes, an album where there are only two uptempo songs: one sounds like the Velvet Underground’s “White Light White Heat,” the other is a polka with a tuba and banjo. Mainstream press were likewise baffled. The indie scene was inherently suspicious of a rock star slumming in its world. The new band was scrappy, loose and exploratory, not a tight rock’n’roll machine. “Maybe Downie wanted the creaky-boards feel of a coffee-house poetry reading,” wrote the Kingston Whig-Standard reviewer (and later Michael Bublé biographer), who cited the “clompy percussion with timid acoustic guitar and Downie’s hesitant vocals in an under-produced sound that has the deliberate unfinished feel of a demo tape.” The Globe and Mail wanted to know “how someone so demanding of his words can be so complacent about the music.”


Gord Downie would never make another record like it again. Yet it became one of the most beloved albums in his discography . Musicians who played on it say that strangers ask them about it all the time. Coke Machine Glow is to Downie what Nebraska is to Bruce Springsteen or Tonight’s the Night to Neil Young: an album full of songs shunned by radio and rarely performed live, yet adored not only by certain fans but by people uninterested in almost everything else by the artist in question. Coke Machine Glow became a secret whispered from one sympathetic ear to another. Like its title, it was a beacon of light in unfamiliar surroundings from a widely recognized brand name.


The album was born on a train. Travelling from Kingston to Toronto, Downie asked Steven Drake for ideas about how to make a solo record. Drake told him to just get a good group of people and record it all live. A solo project would inevitably be a home for songs that fell outside of the Tragically Hip’s oeuvre. But Drake says Downie was “more interested in a certain combination of people and what that would bring about.” 


The first person he had in mind was Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers. “He was really the first friend I made in Toronto,” Downie said. “We’ve been like brothers ever since.” It was Finlayson who convinced him the project could work. Drake was hired as producer, engineer and bassist. Recording at the Bathouse was out: Downie wanted something totally fresh. Not a single piece of equipment, not even a guitar, would be borrowed from the Hip’s clubhouse. 


Downie booked the Gas Station studio, at 53 Fraser Avenue in Toronto’s Liberty Village, run by Dale Morningstar and Don Kerr. Kerr was in the Rheostatics and had toured with the Hip on Another Roadside Attraction in 1995 and on an arena tour in 1997. On the last night of that tour, there was an after-party at the studio, which is where Downie first fell in love with the space. Morningstar and Kerr had once been bandmates in the Dinner Is Ruined, an often chaotic, noisy avant-garde band that started out on the outer reaches of grunge, with nods to Sonic Youth, and got progressively stranger with each record. The Gas Station was their playground, stocked with junkyard instruments and odd artifacts. When Kerr left the Dinner Is Ruined, Morningstar and keyboardist John “Dr. Pee” Press continued as a duo until original Rheos drummer Dave Clark signed on. Kerr remained a partner in the Gas Station, a studio that birthed many beloved records of the late ’90s, including Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park, Neko Case’s Furnace Room Lullaby and Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot for a New Zero Kanada EP. 


In the 1990s, Liberty Village was full of disused factories and loft spaces. It was a corner of Toronto that time forgot, colonized only by film crews and artists looking for maximum space at minimal rent. Today, it’s a bustling village of towering condos, prime office space, upscale bars and high-end grocery stores. At the Gas Station in 2000, you still had to load your gear onto an old freight elevator and down a dusty hallway before entering the magical playroom, with its 12-foot-high ceilings and huge windows that offered a panoramic view of the city. “It was a Fibonacci room,” says Drake, “meaning the height of the ceiling to the width of the wall was 1:618, the Golden Ratio. Those proportions are comforting for people.” The acoustics are inherently impeccable in such a room.


Morningstar was assisting Drake with the studio set-up in late March 2000 when he got a call saying the studio was being evicted. The next week Morningstar staged an anti-gentrification protest outside his landlord’s office, which rallied other artists and got some local media coverage. That night he had a Dinner is Ruined gig at College Street venue Ted’s Wrecking Yard. Having always been the kind of band to walk a tightwire act, with no script or plan, the Dinner is Ruined was known for having an erratic live show. “DIR is like someone plugs the thing in and you never know if it will hop, buzz, fizzle or explode,” said Dave Clark. When they were on fire, however, as they were that night at Ted’s, they were mind-blowing. Gord Downie was in the audience that night, witnessing Morningstar, Clark and Press channel their eviction blues into a strange performance piece about the birth of the universe. Downie was grinning in the middle of the room; one could almost see a light bulb going off over his head. 


That week was the first of two scheduled sessions for Coke Machine Glow, with Kerr on drums and Kevin Hearn on piano. It started out, recalled Hearn, as a series of “very mellow, stoned afternoons.” Until it wasn’t. “The people directly below the studio were having some sort of eviction party,” said Hearn. “They were trashing the place—hurling couches, smashing appliances, throwing bottles at the wall. Gord was trying to do a vocal take, but the noise was too much. He took off his headphones, walked downstairs and calmly walked into their party. I tagged along. Everything stopped when Gord walked in; it was like an old Western movie. Wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy hat, he politely asked if they could please give us an hour, so he could finish his last vocal take. Everyone in the room, a little shocked, said, yes, of course, sorry et cetera. We went back upstairs and finished his vocal, accompanied by beautiful, reverent silence.” 


It resulted in only two songs, “Chancellor” and “SF Song,” along with a rocking, Lou Reed–style take on “Vancouver Divorce” before both Hearn and Kerr had to leave for tour commitments with Barenaked Ladies and Ron Sexsmith, respectively. They were scheduled to return for a second session in June, but the Gas Station was being evicted by May 15. Morningstar called Downie with the bad news; Downie begged to reschedule for any time available before the eviction.


Dave Clark heard about this and knew that Kerr couldn’t finish the record. He asked Morningstar to tell Downie he was available if needed. Morningstar was reluctant; he didn’t feel he knew Downie well enough to put in a word for a friend. But he did. “The Dave Clark?” asked an enthused Downie. “I didn’t think he’d be into it—but yes!”


Dave Clark joined the Rheostatics when he was a teenager, in 1980. His last three records with the band—1990’s Melville, 1992’s Whale Music, 1994’s Introducing Happiness—garnered a massive word-of-mouth cult audience, comprised mainly of fellow musicians, including Neil Peart of Rush. Clark was one of four very different and charismatic characters in the Rheos, whose live shows would veer from the triumphant to harrowing to downright silly. He would often play around the beat rather than delivering a standard rock pulse.


He joined the Dinner Is Ruined on the day he quit the Rheostatics in 1995. He then focused on his improv band, the Woodchoppers Association, while also doing “different joe jobs: a lot of office cleaning and deliveries, some consulting for music festivals,” he said. “I was still delivering Now magazine at that point.” 


Many people didn’t understand why Dave Clark would leave the Rheos for the Dinner is Ruined, or why Gord Downie would possibly hire that band to comprise the majority of his. “With DIR,” said Dave Clark, “it gave me the ultimate faith in any sound, any thought: just make it, if you believe in it. Playing with that band, I learned how to give in. I used to delineate between improvisation and playing songs. I was wrong. You can do what you want.” That freedom was what Downie went looking for. 


When sessions resumed, Morningstar started out plucking the strings of the piano with a guitar pick on “Blackflies” and ended up playing on most of the tracks. “He was like fungus,” said Steven Drake, when talking about Morningstar. “He just grew into it.”


Musicians sat in a circle. Finlayson and Drake knew the songs; Morningstar and Clark were learning as they went. Overdubs, including vocals, were minimal. Drake conducted the band while playing bass; at the end of a take, he’d run back to the control room to work the board. No one wore headphones except Downie, who used a small set of what Clark described as “airplane Walkman headphones, just to get a bit more attenuation on his vocals. We played at a whisper. The record sounds much bigger than what it is.” 


“We didn’t have any amplification,” said Drake. “We were playing at an acoustic level, so we could hear Gord singing in the room. I just had a kick drum mic and a single overhead on the drums. Gord was singing in a Beyer Dynamic Ribbon mic from the ’50s, the same kind of mic Stan Getz used on his horn for ‘Girl From Ipanema.’ He was playing his Martin nylon string [acoustic guitar], and he was quite awkward on his guitar.” 


“I’d never experienced that before,” said Clark, “but the sound was phenomenal. The tones are so clear and we’re playing together, so it’s very dynamic.” 


“There was a magic on that record,” said Morningstar. “There was a map, but I don’t think anyone knew the direction. That’s not a bad thing; we were just moving forward. Some things just happened. The original title [track] was ‘Insomniacs of the World, Goodnight.’ That song came about when I was in the other room, jamming away on the pump organ by myself. Gord was walking through and said, ‘Hey, is that something? Can I use that?’ So he got Steven to come in, mic it up. Gord had his lyrics and they just did it, right then and there. Then they layered on Dave doing some swells and Julie [Doiron] on backing vocals. Gord was so open to stuff like that, the spontaneity of those moments.”


Some of those moments were glorious mistakes—mostly from Dale Morningstar. “If Dale plays what sounds like a wrong note at first, he’ll lean into that thing until it’s the right note,” said Clark. “He’ll bruise that note until you stop feeling the pain and it starts tasting sweet. He’s magical that way.” By Divine Right’s José Contreras, who played organ on two songs, was there when Morningstar played an atonal, screeching note right before the third verse of “Vancouver Divorce.” “I remember Steven Drake: [makes pained face, covers ears] Fuckin’ HELL,’” said Contreras. “I was sitting there going, ‘That’s fucking beautiful.’” 


“Dale was the studio rat character,” said Drake. “He’s a funny guy. I don’t know if he was shitting me or not, but I remember I turned to him and said, ‘Oh, that’s a D.’ He said, ‘Huh? I don’t know what that is.’ Then he played a D. If I played it, he could play it, but he didn’t know the names.” 


“What’s beautiful about the record is the vulnerability, and surrendering to these people that [Gord] trusted,” said Morningstar. “Nobody there sounds like a session player, or like they’re phoning it in or following orders. And there are songs like ‘Trick Rider’: I can’t imagine the Hip doing something that delicate. That set of lyrics also strikes me as the strongest.”


“Trick Rider” is one of the most beautiful songs about parenting ever written, and the most straightforward, emotionally vulnerable set of lyrics Downie had penned since “Fiddler’s Green.” It’s not particularly original subject matter: the narrator marvels at the innocence of his children, long before the hypocrisies and failures of the future can corrupt their idealism. He cannot bear to watch them perform dangerous, carefree acts, even as he admires their fearlessness. In Downie’s hands, of course, the song avoids cliché, and the harmonies with Julie Doiron of Eric’s Trip make it even more haunting. 


“I absolutely adore ‘Trick Rider,’ which I think is one of the greatest songs he ever wrote,” said Clark. “Julie is amazing on that song. The lyric is heartbreaking. I liked that it addressed being an adult with children. A lot of people hide who they are, and Gord did not. He’s a dad. There’s nothing more rock’n’roll than being a dad—oh, wait, yes there is: being a mom!” Clark’s daughter is the same age as Doiron’s and Downie’s eldest; all were about five years old at the time of Coke Machine Glow. The song would routinely move Clark to tears while playing it live, even 10 years later. Doiron called it “one of the most beautiful songs ever written.” She’s not wrong.


Doiron was not given much notice before the session: when she got the call, she was leaving for a Swedish tour in two days, so she went to Toronto a day early before her flight. “Trick Rider” just happened to be the song scheduled for that day. “No one said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to do this one,’” Doiron recalled. She played piano, which she rarely does, only because there were three other guitarists there. 


Doiron and Contreras were two of several players outside the core band brought into the main session. Jaro Czerwinec, who played accordion on the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session, provided a direct link to one of Coke Machine Glow’s inspirations. Andy Maize of the Skydiggers played trumpet. Filmmaker Atom Egoyan played classical guitar. Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez co-wrote one song. The Sadies’ Travis Good played fiddle and mandolin. 


For a record that was supposed to be entirely Hip-free, one guest was more than conspicuous in his presence: Paul Langlois, Downie’s oldest friend in the band, contributes his unmistakable harmonies on “Lofty Pines” and “Yer Possessed.” It was a last-minute decision. Because the entire album was being recorded to only eight tracks, Travis Good’s fiddle got wiped from those two tracks to make room for Langlois. 


Contreras credits Downie’s faith and Drake’s expertise with the album’s success. “It was incredible, musically,” he said. “‘Vancouver Divorce’ was three takes: every take, different set of lyrics. No lyric book in front of him. Maybe he’d have some papers to look at. But he’d sing a lyric and you’d think, ‘That verse is incredible.’ Then he’d not do that verse in the next take. And you can’t be like, ‘Oh, don’t forget that verse.’ Because these other verses are just as great.” 


That said, Contreras felt a clash between what he perceived as the straight half of the band—Drake and Finlayson, both coming from musically conservative rock bands—and the weirdoes from the Dinner Is Ruined. “Steve very much believed in the songs and thought it could be a hit record,” said Contreras. “Because that’s what he does. You can take that really any way you want. There was a lot of tension in the air because Dale and Dave did not click with Steven Drake. I’d had a video hit and I was twenty-nine and Steven pulled me over to get me onto his team: ‘C’mon, José, you like hit records, buddy, we want to make a hit record here, don’t you think?’ Then Dale and Dave did the same thing, pulling me into another room and grouching about ‘fucking corporate rock’ and how shit it is, and the attitude. There was real tension in the studio, but Gord was either oblivious or rose right above it. Not a word about it, zero.”


Contreras was only in the studio two days. The others dispute his version of events. “The sun would be shining in the windows,” said Clark. “Everyone was very happy, joyous, very relaxed. Gord and Steve had a vibe together that made sense. There were times when I wasn’t sure if Steven was making the right decisions, but I listen to the record, and it really makes me happy.” 


“I don’t think there was any uneasiness,” said Morningstar. “I think we were all trying to harvest those songs. I was trying to play as sparse as I could and not overstep. I was the colour man. That’s how I saw myself. It was the first chance I’d had to play with a singer, an outside singer, and really try to play off his voice, or complement it. That’s what everyone was trying to do: not step on the music.”


“I mean, Steven Drake did an amazing job,” said Contreras. “If you listen with the idea that one person in the room was producing and engineering and also in close touch with Gord about what the idea was, and he’s playing bass while looking around the room, too—and then you listen to the bass playing—you realize he’s a fucking master.”


For his first solo performance outside the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie could not have chosen an environment more unlike the rock clubs where he cut his teeth. That said, it did involve beer. 


Held on February 3, 2001, at the newly opened Steam Whistle Brewery in the shadow of the CN Tower, the Do What?! Festival was curated by Dave Clark and Terence Dick of the Woodchoppers Association. Downie was a featured performer, alongside performance artist Sook-Yin Lee, Toronto avant-garde veteran “sound poet” Paul Dutton, dance performances by Andrea Nann and Lisa Prebianca and art installations including one by Reid Diamond of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who’d died of cancer months before. Tickets were $10, available only at College Street record store Soundscapes. They sold out immediately. Judging by the dress code of the crowd at this freaky event, a significant majority were mainstream Hip fans unsure what they were in for.


“It was the kind of gig I’d normally do with the Woodchoppers,” said Clark, “dancers, singers, visual artists, musicians all together. Gord worked out these dance pieces with Andrea Nann, who is one of the greatest living exponents of modern dance Canada has ever produced. He improvised with the Woodchoppers. We had a huge band, and everyone was dressed up in everything from hockey gear to princess and fairy outfits. Gord kicked it through the post, man. It was really good. I remember some people being beside themselves, freaking out at how much fun it was, and others were just shocked.” Nothing about the evening was predictable or rote. Downie looked delighted, completely at ease in this environment. 


In July 2001, Downie debuted his “Goddamned Band” with Finlayson, Morningstar and Clark, as well as John “Dr. Pee” Press from the Dinner Is Ruined on keyboards and Julie Doiron, who would alternate between guitar and bass with Finlayson. Their first gig was playing a webcast for the Umbrella Music site. “We’d rehearsed a bit, but I didn’t feel like I really knew the songs yet,” said Doiron. “I went up to Gord and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m so nervous! I’m freaking out. What am I doing here? Why me?’ He said, ‘Julie, you’re here because I need you here.’ He could have easily had any studio musician who would know all the parts. But he didn’t want that. I don’t think he’s ever looked for that. He wants people he wants to be around, creative people, not necessarily technically good. That’s what makes working with him so cool, because he trusts whatever it is you’re going to do. I’ve never been given any guidance. He’s like, ‘You know what to do.’”


That was followed by a few select dates at summer folk festivals, starting the weekend of July 27 at the Calgary Folk Festival and the Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario. Those shows threw a lot of Hip fans for a loop, even if they had bought Coke Machine Glow a few months earlier. “Sure, some hardcore Hip fans just hated it,” said Morningstar. “But I’m sure some thought, ‘This is different, this is great.’ People didn’t shout out for Hip tunes. We thought that might happen, but it didn’t at all. Gord was just proud— proud of the band and what we were doing. He would say stuff like, ‘I love this band. I believe in this band. This is my band. I’m really good at putting bands together.’ He didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. He wanted to make it good from his own perspective and from ours.” 


The Goddammed Band, later renamed the Country of Miracles, was a relief valve for Downie. If the Hip had become entrenched in an all-too-familiar working method, with audiences cheering the loudest for songs written 10 years prior, this new band had something to prove every night. And they were fearless players. 


“Things would get outside,” said Clark. “That band was able to go in on a dime. Lots of vocals, some really bluegrassy stuff. I ended up playing tuba; we all played different things. When we went to New York City, we’d play in the middle of the audience. We’d stretch things out; Gord would extemporize. Every time we’d go on tour there would be a lot of taking the piss out of each other and loads of jokes. After gigs, we’d put on some music and dance and sing on the bus. We’d hang out and talk about music. Everybody in that band is a hyper nerd.” 


It wasn’t just Downie learning from his band; the exchange was mutual on all fronts. Clark praised Doiron for influencing his own playing. “She’s a monster of a musician,” he said. “She’s one of the hardest-working musicians I’ve ever met and manages to raise a gigantic family of kids. She had this vibe, this groove, this pocket she could get into, which helped me out as a player a lot. I tend to get adrenalized and can push things too hard. She made me aware of some things that could work better, and I thought, ‘I should listen to this person. She knows what she’s talking about.’”


It was also a band of singers. Having just toured with Kate Fenner as a temporary member of the Hip, Downie relished the even bigger harmonies his new band could provide. So did Clark. “I love singing with people, probably more than I love drumming,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be on stage and it would be like, ‘Holy fuck, man, I’m singing backups with Gord Downie!’ I’d look around, and there were all my friends I’d known for years and we’re on stage together and the whole thing’s bouncing and we’re having a good time. Then my brain would shut off and I’d start listening and be part of the band again.” 


Cover songs appeared in many of the sets, the first time since he had a record contract that Downie regularly sang other people’s songs live. The Goddammned Band did some Randy Newman, some Bob Dylan, some Taj Mahal, some CCR. And one particularly memorable version of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.” 


“We ended up headlining the Edmonton Folk Festival, at night,” Clark recalled. “The ampitheatre there is on what looks like a ski hill, and people light candles so it’s like looking at stars at night. The band before us was Baaba Maal’s big band, from Africa, an eighteen-piece band with dancers. I remember standing at the side of the stage with Dale and saying, ‘Jesus. Who thought this was a good idea, to put us on after these guys?’ But we got up and had, to my mind, the best set of the tour. We started with ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ Gord walked out there and just grabbed it—every night.” 


When there was time, the Dinner Is Ruined booked shows for off nights in the same town. Again, Edmonton was a highlight. At a gig at the Liquid Lounge, Finlayson joined them on bass, and Gord commandeered the mic while the five of them improvised an entire set of music. In an odd twist, said Morningstar, “One big DIR fan after was like, ‘Ah, man.’ He was bummed out that Gord Downie was on our stage. I’m like, ‘Oh, c’mon.’” 


Something similar happened in Yellowknife. “They put us up in a house for five days,” recalled Morningstar. “One night, a Monday or Tuesday, we went down to the local watering hole, where they had an open mic. We went and said, ‘Can we hit the stage?’ Josh was home sleeping. We took over that room. It was Gord freestyling. It was the DIR with Julie on bass. The crowd had no idea Gord Downie was going to play. They were all standing on tables. No songs, we were just jamming. It was the peak of his freestyling, just going for it.” 


Whether or not Downie knew what he had been looking for when he stepped outside the framework of the Hip, he had most certainly found it. This was a new family of freaks, of dancers, of kindred spirits. Even if they never took precedence over the Tragically Hip, even if they only did two other records and tours over the next 16 years, these were people with whom Downie felt at home. The feeling was more than mutual.


“The time we spent together was special and intense and instructive,” said Clark. “More than anything, we developed a lifelong friendship. I don’t have to see Julie for years and when I see her it’s beautiful. I go out walking with Josh, and I start laughing before we even open our mouths. All those people who played on the first record: Andy, Don, José, Kevin—they’re all friends. My whole point for playing music personally is to commune with people. I don’t go to church; I’m not a religious person. Where I go to church is when I get on stage with people. I want to be with people. I want to sing. I want that endorphin rush. I want to be a part of something. With Gord and that crew, there was a real community and a real family and I’m deeply grateful for it.”