[19 March 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Canada’s Bob Wiseman is among the country’s most iconoclastic singer-songwriters, one who has ignited his share of controversy and publicity high jinx. Considered Canada’s version of Tom Waits by fellow Canadian musician Ron Sexsmith—a comparison that seems forced as Wiseman sounds nothing like the American troubadour, but still—the former Blue Rodeo keyboardist (and Blue Rodeo is arguably Canada’s second most beloved Canadiana act behind the Tragically Hip) has run into problems with his some of his more politically-themed material. For instance, his second solo album, 1989’s In Her Dream: Bob Wiseman Sings Wrench Tuttle ran into a snafu when his record company at the time, Warner Music, destroyed the first thousand copies of the disc because they feared the song “Rock and Tree”, which is about the so-called assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende (officially listed as a suicide) and which name-checked the likes of former U.S. president Richard Nixon, ex-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Pepsi Cola CEO Donald M. Kendall, was libelous.
But that’s not what Wiseman is most famous for. In 1993, when Prince decided to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Wiseman seized on the opportunity and announced via press release that he was changing his name to Prince in the wake of the Purple One’s abandonment of the moniker. The move earned Wiseman scores of international press, until, of course, Prince’s lawyers sent Wiseman a cease-and-desist letter. So Wiseman has earned a reputation for being a bit of a broken cog in the recording industry machine, so it should come as no surprise that his twelfth record and most recent release, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, is just as bitingly political and possibly sarcastic of artists in high places, such as Neil Young, as ever.
While Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying can be categorized as a bit of a “weird” record, one that traverses a multitude of musical styles to staggering effect, it is never difficult and is remarkably approachable, even if you don’t share Wiseman’s particularly leftist world view. (And as someone who voted Conservative in the last Canadian federal election, I don’t.) It’s an album of both celebration at awards ceremonies (see the title track and “Neil Young at the Junos”) and politically charged material on “The Reform Party at Burning Man” or “Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver Airport”—about a Polish man who was tasered to death by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the titular place six years ago—or “Aristide at the Press Conference”, a reference to Haiti’s first democratically-elected president who was exiled in 2004. It is also a personal album: the song “Mothface@yahoo.com” is a tribute to Wiseman’s late friend, actress Tracy Wright.
This record is also pop culturally drenched as “Lobbyists at Parliament” names Bo Diddley and Yo-Yo Ma, and Canadian gay author and playwright Sky Gilbert makes an appearance in the aforementioned “Mothface@yahoo.com”. But, not only that, there are references to the Toronto G20 Summit protests of 2010 (“The Reform Party at Burning Man”) and the infamous Scottsboro Boys case of racial injustice in the American south of the 1930s (“Ruby Bates at School”). Is there a lot going on with Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying? Yes. And that is precisely what makes this record so appealing on repeated listens. You reveal something new every time you hear it. It may be wide-reaching and all over the place, but one thing you can say about this long-player in particular is that it is never quite boring.
Musically, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying is stylish in its mid-fi renderings. The title track has a Spanish waltz feel to it, with a break that sounds a bit Middle Eastern. “Lobbyists at Parliament” offers everything from kitchen sink funk, R&B and jazz with its saxophone. “Mothface@yahoo.com” is a baroque-pop piece that sounds remotely Beatles-esque. The pulsing piano ditty “Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver Airport” even has a mid-break faux news bulletin. “Aristide at the Press Conference” is a down-and-dirty slide blues ditty. But, best of all, is the countrified “Neil Young at the Junos”, which offers some luscious female “do-doots” in the background just like Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. There’s something going on with virtually every song here, but it all hangs remarkably well with its dark themes of death and deceit, as the press release notes. Wildly over the map, and wildly inventive, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying hits the spot and gets more and more interesting with each pass.
While Bob Wiseman will probably never become a household name as a solo artist, though his work with Blue Rodeo is quite widely known in his native Canada, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying shows how vital and interesting he is as an artist. You may not often agree with his political sentiments (and I don’t), but you can sidestep that all with the fact that he is a man of quiet vitriol and conviction. He believes what he is saying, even if his tongue might be firmly stuck in his cheek at times. That brute honesty is refreshing to hear. What’s more, he has the musical chops and a tuneful take with this material on this record that is quite beguiling. If I could summarize Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying in one word, it would be this: rich. It just feels so layered and deep, and there’s a real sense of a singular vision at work here. While Wiseman’s world view can be skewed, he can be quite convincing, which is a high compliment coming from a slightly right-of-centre person like me.
This long player is a real piece of art, and worthy of praise from anyone regardless of one’s political leanings. Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying is a joy to listen to, despite its bleak subject matter, since the music is usually so uplifting. With this record, Wiseman shows that he has a wide palette, and anyone who can appreciate their music being slightly off-centre, will find much to enjoy. Bob Wiseman might have been making music since the ‘80s both as a solo performer and a former member of one of Canada’s most popular and enduring bands, but with Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, he reaches the pinnacle of rock elder statesman, and shows, no matter what your personal inclination or leanings are, that he can be a very wise man with a great deal to say, indeed.