Being Canada’s smallest province in terms of both land area and population, not a lot has come out of Prince Edward Island culturally. Sure, the region is home to Anne of Green Gables and Canadian country music legend Stompin’ Tom Connors spent some time there as a youth, but ask any Canuck to name a group that famously came out of the small island, and those of a certain age may only be able to reach for Haywire, a really cheesy ‘80s synth-rock band that, to the best of my knowledge, nostalgic radio stations won’t even touch. However, things are changing. Charlottetown’s Two Hours Traffic has been making some headway in the Canadian music scene, and chugging along right behind them is a young band called Boxer the Horse, so named for a character in George Orwell’s classic allegorical novella Animal Farm. There must be something about P.E.I. bands taking their names from literary sources, as Two Hours Traffic nicked their moniker from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julliet. Boxer the Horse has been doing fairly well for itself, as the group was named Best New Band of 2010 by CBC Radio 3, who also shortlisted “Mary Meets the Pilot”, the lead single off their first album Would You Please, for 2010 Song of the Year. Two years later, and the band has a follow-up disc called French Residency—one that will continue to solidify the comparisons to two unlikely bands, Pavement and the Kinks. What French Residency proves is that the group has the slacker ambition and slurry indie rock guitars of the ‘90s alterna rock powerhouse, especially noticeable on opening track “Community Affair”, while marrying that sound with the witty wordplay and character sketches of Ray Davies.
French Residency is an album that is front-loaded: the first three songs are arguably the very best things to be found on it. The aforementioned “Community Affair” sounds so remarkably twisted from the atonal guitars of Stephen Malkmus and company that you’d be forgiven if you’d thought someone had accidentally slipped a copy of Slanted and Enchanted into the digipack of this release. Follow-up “Sentimental/Oriental” reaches for the sort of tweeness of early Belle and Sebastian, and is absolutely catchy with its rambly guitars strumming lively away. Third track “Rattle Your Cage” takes another sonic left turn into powerful crunchy rock territory, sounding remarkably like it could have been ripped from the songbook of ‘70s arena rock bands such as Cheap Trick. Together, those first three blasts of genuine pop hookiness offer a great deal of promise for the remainder of the album, but, alas, the shine begins to wear a bit thin as one traverses to the record’s mid-section.
Basically, it turns out that for every great song gracing French Residency, there’s usually a dud to follow it, particularly when the band makes an attempt at balladry. “Me & Steve McQueen”, right at the halfway point of the disc, has a tossed-off feel to it: the gentle acoustic song only clocks in at 1:44, making it seem more of a fragment than an actual song. Similarly, “Tough Luck” suffers the same fate: it feels like filler and the woodsy swagger doesn’t really carry the tune through to the three minute mark. The punky “Bridge to the U.S.A.” is scorching and searing, but peters out only after two minutes or so. So there’s a fair amount of squandered opportunity to be found here. Which leads me to my next comment in that the liner notes indicate the 10 songs that make up the album were culled from 15 recorded, and it would be my advice to the band to write a boatload more songs and cherry-pick from the very best. After all, the perfect 20 songs that grace Guided by Voices’ masterpiece Bee Thousand were reportedly whittled down from about 100. French Residency, even at its slightly more than a half-hour in length, just feels weighed down with the occasional sub-par song, so there’s a lot more room for the band to grow and mature, and really work on their craft.
Still, French Residency has its moments, and intriguing bon mots on the lyric sheet. The jangly “Karen Silkwood”, named after the ‘70s American labour union activist who died in a rather mysterious car accident, boasts the memorable and baffling opening lines “I’m in the car when Karen Silkwood was killed / Texas Ranger won’t you marry me still?”—words that bring to mind a seeming morbid similarity to the lyrics to Hüsker Dü’s “Wheels”, which go, “On a date with Sharon Tate / I’m gonna pick her up in my new crate / Well, we go to the movies / We go to a drag / The highway patrol puts us both in a bag.” Meanwhile, “Community Affair” offers the clever line “it’s not impossible to reach nirvana when you’re sleeping with piranhas in Brazil.” If anything, French Residency shows a certain giftedness in wordsmithery, and definitely a great deal of promise sonically at points. The individual songs might be hit or miss, but the album as a whole attempts to be consistent with songs bleeding into each other, a hallmark of decent production trying to tie some very diverse ideas together.
While the album has its share of ups and downs, there’s a fair amount to admire when Boxer the Horse brings its A-game to the table. In a few more years, with a few more songs under its belt, the band will certainly be something that could be reckoned with. In other words, Boxer the Horse – with a bit more wisdom and clarity of purpose – could be a real contender and offer a solid knock-out, hints of which are present on French Residency’s more tuneful and skilled moments where the band, quite unintentionally, sound like they’re not even trying. Along with Two Hours Traffic, Boxer the Horse have a kinetic form of power pop that will eventually make the tiny island they hail from really proud, and, hopefully, make us forget that a band named Haywire even existed.