Music

Boxer the Horse: French Residency

What French Residency proves is that the group has the slacker ambition and slurry indie rock guitars of Pavement married with the witty wordplay and character sketches of Ray Davies.


Boxer the Horse

French Residency

Label: Self-released
US Release Date: 2012-03-13
UK Release Date: 2012-03-13
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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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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