When I first down to write this review, I was inclined to lament that it’s a shame these guys aren’t half as popular here in the U.S. as they are in Canada. It’s a shame more of us down here haven’t listened to where rock and roll has run off to, exemplified by the first three albums by The Tragically Hip, now re-released by Sire Records with new electronic media to boot. Ultimately, though, I fear that the state of the music industry won’t allow us to grant The Tragically Hip more than scant air time—they’re far removed from most of the hollow fluff that litters the radio and deserve more than the accolades of Backstreet Boy and Britney Spears junkies.
Formed in 1983 by Gordon Downie (vocals), Bobby Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass) and Johnny Fay (drums), The Tragically Hip have enjoyed huge success in Canada. Over the last 17 years America has proven especially resistant to their sound, and their lack of success in America has frustrated record companies urging them upon the American public. Now Sire is trying their luck with the band…perhaps they’ll prove more successful.
Their self-titled debut EP, The Tragically Hip, released in 1987, is pure rock and roll, raw and loud. No complex production here, only the unbridled energy and enthusiasm of five guys putting soul to wax. The first track, “Small Town Bringdown,” is reminiscent of Tom Petty, sporting Petty-esque guitar melody and simplicity of composition. “Evelyn” is a particularly driving ditty about an itinerant lady, whereas “Killing Time” is bluesy lyrics contemplating murder laid over the quick rhythmic chords resembling the more staccato rhythms of the Stones. Nothing new here, just good ol’ rock and roll, and the rough promise of greater things to come.
Their sophomore effort, Up to Here, was their first full-length album, and a step beyond the first, production—and music-wise. It’s especially strange that the opening track, “Blow at High Dough,” didn’t hit it big here like it did in Canada. The track is driven by two guitars, the first guitar churning in the background, the second enticing melody out of the song with licks and promises, harking back to some of The Cult’s raunchier tunes. This song has “hit” written all over it. The lyrics on “38 Years Old” are mature and creepy, the ring of the acoustic guitar almost chilling when combined with the haunting, distorted shrill of the accompanying electric guitar. Overall, Up to Here is a far superior album to the raw promise of The Hip’s debut album, and a logical musical step toward their next album.
Road Apples, released in 1991, was that next album, and a damned good one at that. “Twist My Arm” is one rockin’ tune, full of southern guitar twang remembering early ZZ Top. The reverb on “Long Time Running” is the perfect counterpoint for the pointed despair of Gordon Downie’s lyrics. Especially beautiful is the acoustic melody, “Fiddler’s Green,” a sure departure from the straightforward rock and roll of their first album.
Listening to The Tragically Hip’s first three albums is a lot like listening to the evolution of a good rock and roll band into an outstanding rock and roll band. That’s what they are, at the root of it: a rock and roll band. You can hear plenty of their style on the radio now, especially in the sounds of The Counting Crows, but they’ve yet to achieve the success of the Crows.
The Tragically Hip make rock and roll look effortless and that is the highest praise I can bestow upon a band that deserves mainstream recognition worldwide for their brazen courage to carry the rock and roll flag into a future full of electronic music and Monica Lewinsky handbags. We Americans should have some meat with our fluff too.