Forlorn Tales from the Canadian West
Allen Ginsberg once said the best poem to read aloud is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”. Just go outside, blast it out, he suggested, and lose yourself in the breath rhythms. Out here on the Canadian Prairies, you can’t do that. You climb a hill (yes, we have hills), you brace yourself against the vicious wind threatening to topple you, take a breath, and before you can yell out, “O Wild West Wind,” a grasshopper smacks you in the face. Wind out on the Plains is a staggeringly powerful force, providing an unsettling, rumbling background noise on what would be an otherwise quiet afternoon. A similar, foreboding force hides beneath the songs on Vancouver-based Radiogram’s new album All the Way Home, a remarkable effort that feels like a two-day summer drive from Winnipeg, Manitoba, through Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, into Alberta towards the Canadian Rockies, without the country AM radio: warm and sunny, lugubrious, gentle curves and valleys, with songs that take their time getting to where they’re going, and all the while that sinister thrum of wind drones in the background.
Radiogram’s chief singer/songwriter Ken Beattie knows this setting all to well, having grown up in Winnipeg, and this follow-up to the band’s acclaimed Unbetween from two years ago further cements Radiogram’s status as one of Canada’s best bands. An ambitious record with songs sometimes lasting up to eight minutes in length, All the Way Home provides an original tweak in the typical alt-country sound we’ve grown used to over the past several years. Comparisons? Picture a cross between Wilco, Lambchop, and the more recent incarnation of Yo La Tengo. Beattie’s songwriting is now so good he’s venturing incredibly close to Jeff Tweedy status. Radiogram’s use of trumpet, trombone, and strings echo the chamber-country stylings of Kurt Wagner; the band’s willingness to quieten things down and take their time is very similar to Yo La Tengo’s most recent album . . . And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
The songs may musically reflect the wide expanse of the prairies, but Beattie’s lyrics are as world-weary as anything you’ll come across. “Self Helpless” (the title says it all), with its dark drum rolls that sound like rolling thunder in the distance, has Beattie singing in a similarly spare, creaky fashion as Steve Earle (“Once I saw you I was mesmerized / But I didn’t know then / You wore a cheap disguise”), as the music slowly plays. It’s like watching a 4:00 a.m. sunrise, the ultimate Sunday morning song. Beattie waxes philosophic in his own realistic way on the lovely “Gone to Stay” (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”), and then conjures the spirit of Charlie Rich on the lovelorn, drunken ballad “Whisky in My Bed”. “Buy the Farm”, and especially the sublime “(Waiting For) The Merry Go Round”, are simple, quiet, pretty songs, with the hushed backing vocals on the latter track sounding a bit like Belle & Sebastian. There’s even a cover, a terrific version of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” that will make you wonder why no one bothered to make a country version of the song sooner.
The tracks that serve as the album’s centerpiece reflect both the sunny and dreary sides of the summer months. The wistful “Summer Song Summer” is a lighthearted tale of those dreadfully short summer months in Canada, with the annual one-hit-wonder radio tunes serving as the season’s soundtrack, sort of a country response to Husker Du’s classic tribute to Minnesota’s similarly short season, 1985’s “Celebrated Summer”: “Another summer song summer / Full of one-hit number ones / Current on the charts / Everybody sing along . . . the radio is playing nothing else / Another anthem for today’s lost youth.” On the flipside is the gloomy, yet stunning “Cemetery Summer”, a tale of a man talking to his dead wife, where Beattie morbidly sings, “Thrice you tried to save me / Twice it seemed to work / Now I can’t say I’m sorry / That now I kiss the dirt / Your tombstone looks so pretty / But I can’t see the words / The waxing has been waning / Get the flashlight from the hearse.”
All the Way Home gets even better on “Can America”, Beattie’s barbed commentary on the increasing Americanization of Canadian culture (“We had the red and white / Now we’ve got the blue”), inspired by reports of Canada selling fresh water from its millions of lakes to its Southern neighbors. His lyrics are double-edged, criticizing both America’s infiltration of the mass media, as well as Canadians’ willingness to roll over and accept it without a fight: “The eagle flew down the highway and he liked what he did see / The beavers were all busy building our American dream / The satellites on the rooftop no longer beamed down CBC / Thank God for television / Thank God for the land of the free.” Beattie ends the song with a plea for some more national pride, singing, “Now no one can remember how the anthem goes / Something about ‘far and wide’ / About how out hearts should glow / The stars on the banner, well, they’re far to dull to shine / Can America be yours? / Can America be mine?”
Radiogram is helped out by notable guests Carolyn Mark, who sings backing vocals on a couple tracks, and noted steel guitarist Bob Egan, but their real secret weapon is their own bandmember Ida Nilsen. A multi-instrumentalist who contributes piano, accordion, and backing vocals, while her simple, wobbly, charmingly imperfect trumpet solos gives Radiogram a sound all their own.
Even though Canadian music is selling well on both sides of the border these days, popular Canadian music has never been worse. Embarrassing hack acts like Nickelback, Default, Our Lady Peace, Matthew Good, the Tea Party, and the inimitable Alanis Morrissette represent the worst my country has to offer (thank goodness for Sum 41 and Sloan), and their popularity has forced good Canadian music underground. You have to do some digging, but the gems you find are real beauts, and Radiogram’s majestic All the Way Home is the best Canadian album since the New Pornographers’ 2000 pop masterpiece Mass Romantic. As you hear the exquisite epic ballad “Not Here” closes the album, I know you’ll be nodding in agreement.
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