[10 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Canadian writer and musician Dave Bidini made international headlines early in May, because he was simply in a Toronto café enjoying a good sandwich. Well, that wasn’t the reason. The couple he was sitting beside broke up publically and Bidini wound up live tweeting the whole thing, and before you knew it, the whole thing was pretty much viral and the subject of blog articles. It’s actually a fairly hilarious read, and, at one point, Bidini notes that the male member of said breakup was peering intently into his girlfriend’s salad. I believe that “He is looking at her salad”, one of the tweets Bidini made, is going to find its way onto T-shirts any day now, and, hey, I’d buy one. As a publicity move, at least for his band Bidiniband’s third album, The Motherland it was pretty savvy.
If you don’t follow Canadian rock music, Dave Bidini is probably foreign to you. He’s currently a columnist for Canada’s The National Post daily newspaper, and the author of many music, travel, and sports books. Whether he’s writing about the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, or playing minor league baseball in Italy, or a how-to guide about being a rock star for kids, Bidini is a scribe par excellence. His tome, On a Cold Road, which is part memoir and part oral history of Canadian rock, is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in music from the Great White North. But Bidini has another claim to fame: He was guitarist for the Rheostatics, which, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, were one of the leading Canadian independent acts. They unabashedly were one of the few bands at the time that sang about Canada, and sometimes sang in the country’s second official language, French, and scored a Top 40 hit with the song “Claire”. They were also known for their protest tune, “Bad Time to Be Poor”, a screed against the Ontario Conservative government of the day.
These days, Bidini has his own band, Bidiniband, which features Don Kerr, one time drummer for the Rheostatics. The Motherland was mixed by Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who also was a member of the Rheos at one point. So this is a bit of a homecoming for Bidini, and it’s no surprise that the album is basically one long rant against the current Conservative government at the federal level, even going so far to namecheck current Prime Minister Stephen Harper with particular bile and rage. Naturally, this makes Bidiniband rather hard to market outside of Canada, but you get the sense that Bidini and his cohorts wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a profoundly bitter and scorching take on the state of affairs in Canada, and no more so than on the sarcastically titled “All Hail Canada”, which is full of quotable material: “All hail Canada / We know what’s best / The only country but the States not to sign the Kyoto Accord.” And if that wasn’t enough here’s another bon mot: “All hail Canada / Where prisons grow / From the minimum sentencing of the pot heads / Who were caught at home smoking dope lying in bed / We’ll send them to the prison with the Blacks and the Indians / In the land of the brave and free.” Ouch!
If anything though, The Motherland is built like a sandwich: The opening and closing songs are nothing to write home about – opener “The Grey Wave” has a memorable hook but a lackluster verse section, and “Say the Names”, a mixture of gospel, jazz, and country, doesn’t really work – but it’s the meat in the middle that makes this album. “Ladies of Montreal”, partially sung in French, is a toe-tapping delight and a sopping wet love letter to Quebec. “The Return of Fat” is a nearly seven minute long narrative that works as a Bildungsroman. And the countrified “Everyday Superstar” is a damaging look at the dangers of fame, filtered through a nice country strum. And Bidini sets out his manifesto on the title track: “You might think I’m an angry, radical freak for all I’ve sung / But when it comes to speaking my mind, I’ve only just begun.” This album, then, is basically a political statement, and probably works best if you share Bidini’s particular world view, which might be a fair amount considering the fact that Canadians are clamouring for political change. Still, this is probably going to date this record when the country goes to the polls again, likely sometime next year.
On a number of these songs, Bidini’s voice sounds particularly reminiscent of another David, David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. And that’s what makes this album particularly enjoyable. It reaches out beyond its borders and jettisons into the land of the universal, at least musically. Despite the fact that Bidini is a proud Canadian, and has no issue with tackling Canadian topics in song, which has made him something of a trailblazer – there was a time when Canadians didn’t sing about Canada to make their music more palpable to those living particularly in the United States – and you have to give him credit for going down that path. The Motherland shows that, at the age of 50, Dave Bidini shows no signs of slowing, and we can all celebrate the fact that he’s still making music. There is plenty of bracing stuff to be found on the record, and Bidini’s knack for the unconventional subject matter and brand of twisted rock and roll fusion is on full display. The Motherland is a strong statement, and shows that Bidini still has his main career going when he’s not writing or Tweeting about people breaking up. We can all be satisfied with that, because Canada needs its Dave Bidini’s to illuminate some dark truths about Canada, as he does here.