The Wilderness of Manitoba: Between Colours

Between Colours reaches for the sun and the stars, not to mention the backs of the bleachers.
The Wilderness of Manitoba
Between Colours
Pheromone Recordings

During the 1980s, Toronto’s Duke Street Records was arguably the preeminent indie label in Canada. Think of it as yesterday’s Arts & Crafts. Boasting a diverse roster of acts ranging from the immensely talented Jane Siberry, Art Bergmann and Chalk Circle (basically Canada’s answer to Echo and the Bunnymen), the label perhaps didn’t have a signature sound. But it was a cool label for most of its 10 years of existence between 1984 and 1994, and certainly it was an indie Canadian powerhouse for much of the ‘80s.

In the context of the Wilderness of Manitoba’s fourth album, Between Colours, the spirit of Duke Street looms large. Opening cut “Big Skies”, with its thin, liquid guitar line, could easily be considered a candidate for the sort of thing that the record label used to specialize in. Since the Wilderness of Manitoba is actually from Toronto, it’s apt that the trio apes the “cool” and “new wavy” sonics that you might have found on Duke Street back in the day. Hearing “Big Skies” as a middle-aged Canadian listener, one cannot help but be transported back in time to a distinct era of Canadian music — back when the genre, if you will, was taking baby steps towards forging a unique identity separate from the acts of the ‘70s and before that who tried to essentially ape what was popular either in the United States or Europe.

Ironies of ironies, then. There are guest stars from Canada’s rock past on Between Colours, and none is bigger than the presence of Rush’s Alex Lifeson shredding some solo guitar on “Shift”. Even if you didn’t know Lifeson was on this album, you would listen to the virtuoso guitar solo on the song and go, yep, that’s Alex Lifeson. Of course, members of Rush have always been kind to Canada’s indie community, considering that they are Canada’s biggest indie band: Rush put out their self-titled debut album in Canada in 1974 on their own record label, and its members are associate directors of Toronto’s Anthem independent label, which was formed so that Rush would have more control of their work in their home country after signing with Mercury Records internationally. Drummer Neil Peart appeared on the Rheostatics’ classic 1992 album, Whale Music, and, interestingly, the Rheostatics’ producer and one-time drummer Michael Phillip Wojewoda plays ghostly theremin on “Smoke Leaves a Trace”. So Between Colours is an album with deep links to the Canadian music scene, but tries to have its own distinctness beyond roping in some big guest musicians to perform on it.

Between Colours also could be considered something of a concept album. It is separated into two distinct halves — perfect for vinyl — consisting of a “day side” and a “night side” (shades of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness anyone?). However, if you think that there’s a shift in mood between the two sides, you might come away from the disc scratching your head. There are indelible rockers on both sides, as well as lilting ballads. The separation, then, feels more like a gimmick than a bonafide artistic stroke. However, the album has enticing stuff, from the Crazy Horse-inspired guitar crunch of “Shadow Forgiveness” to the somewhat proggy “The Movement of Stars”, which features a vocal performance from the group’s Amanda Balsys that hews rather closely to Karen Carpenter. This, by the way, could be another link to Canadiana: the Carpenters covered Canadian band Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The group is also interested in tempo changes. While “Big Skies” starts out as a jaunty ‘80s-style rock song, by the three-minute mark, things simmer down and the band stretches out into an impromptu jammy section. The reverse is true of “The Movement of Stars”, which starts out as a slow trot, but gets more and more frantic as the song gradually progresses.

The record also reaches out sonically into the catalogue of Fleetwood Mac. First single “Leave Someone”, with its vocal harmonies and countrish guitars, sounds as though it might have been lifted from Rumours. Elsewhere, “Fade from My Light” could pass as a Cranberries track in an alternate universe. Variety is the name of the game when it comes to Between Colours, and while that doesn’t lend well to a unity of theme or sound, it does keep listeners on their toes. The album is a crowd pleaser, as there’s a vaguely commercial underpinning to the album’s sound, and it certainly doesn’t feel as though it is a product of Canada’s young rock landscape. Between Colours reaches for a broad audience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You have to wonder, despite the very Canadian sounding name of the group, if this outfit has an agenda of breaking out of the confines of the Canuck music scene and scoring international success. This sentiment is bolstered by the fact that, along with the aforementioned guest musicians, no less than three session drummers were brought in to perform on the disc. The Wilderness of Manitoba has its strings section down pat, but seems to be sans rhythm section beyond a bassist.

So, Between Colours reaches for the sun and the stars, not to mention the backs of the bleachers. It also paints the Wilderness of Manitoba as musical chameleons. Members have come and gone, and the album title refers to the evolution of the group from album to album — that each album is simply between the one before it and the one that comes next and is its own beast. With that in mind, it does seem that this outfit does have a bold future ahead of it. Between Colours is enjoyable, though not earth shattering, and its only inherent weakness is the lack of a thread between the actual songs, in terms of sound, at least. This is a record showing a band trying on different coats to see what fits, and though there are a number of really great fits, this is the sound of a group still unsure of what direction they ultimately want to pursue. Still, when you bring in a hired gun as big as Alex Lifeson, you have to be doing something right, and the Wilderness of Manitoba is busy clearing its own portage trail through the bush country, even if it does zig-zag a bit. The greatest asset of a record such as Between Colours is that it is a telling reminder that Canadian rock has always been strong, and it just goes to show that, had this come out 30 years ago on Duke Street Records, we might be talking about the Wilderness of Manitoba in the same hushed tones as Canadian artists that paved the way for Canadians to sing about Canada for Canadians, if not to the rest of the world.

RATING 7 / 10
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