Former Deadly Snakes front man trades in bar brawling for barstool lament on love.
Andre Ethier's name has been synonymous with Toronto’s the Deadly Snakes for the past 10 years. The group had been a sort of revolving band of brothers since its inception in the summer of 1996, starting, as all good rock collectives should, by playing a friend's keg party in a sweaty room under a laundromat in the city's artsy Kensington Market. The story of that night has reached mythical proportions among Toronto hipsters, but that one-time gig garnered such a response from the kids that the boys decided to continue playing together, and remained downtown darlings until their very recent decision to put the band to bed this past summer. Ethier, whose Dylan-esque voice is another quantifier that always seems to immediately follow his name in print, had established his front-man status years ago and took his first solo steps with the release of Andre Ethier with Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles and Price in 2004.
The collaboration was an obvious one: Ethier and Sandes had long been running in the same circles, and music was inherent in their friendship, both being local music figureheads of sorts from back when the expression "hipster" still carried a positive connotation. That debut album for Ethier was the fruition of the duo making good on a promise to record together one day, and the fluidity from those drunken conversations to the studio was easily recognizable. The album was a wonderfully disjointed mix of first takes with bare-bones production, and the musicianship was clear even beyond the loose, barroom swagger that carried the record. The fact is, Ethier easily possesses one of the most unforgettable voices on the Canadian scene -- he's as capable of howling out a mighty racket as he is a throaty whisper -- and Sandes was one of the most untapped musical resources in Toronto at the time. The album reflected the rare treat of a spontaneous session from a pair with obvious musical camaraderie.
Since that debut, Ethier co-spearheaded another Deadly Snakes' release, went on tour, got married, initiated a budding painting career, and announced the end of the 10-year reign of the Deadly Snakes. He's been a busy guy. Not too busy to fade out any songwriting, fortunately, but perhaps just busy enough to be willing to hand the reins over to Sandes a bit more on their second project together, recorded again at Toronto's east-end Hallam studio and thusly named Secondathallam. Clearly, Ethier is not much for bantering in his album titles. Besides putting together the same pieces for this project -- Pickles and Price (aka the Snakes' Andrew Gunn and Matt Carlson) are in the mix again on bass and drums -- Ethier's second solo stab moves away from the live spontaneity of the first record. There are more than just first takes on this album, and there is also a clear theme inspired by Ethier's recent marriage.
This is not exactly a whole-hearted love album; Ethier has clearly been facing a reality of romantic ideas lately, but the record takes them with a grain of salt. Where his new bride is affectionately always his "little girl" and at once the "honey bee buzzin' freely in his heart," she is also the woman in his arms who will "fuss like an infant / wail like a child," who will "never seem to be pleased…could never be satisfied." The album is full of this sort of juxtaposition, so while the label's press release supports the notion that this record is just one big den of love, Ethier's songwriting is never so simple. Even when the songs themselves may appear simple, there is usually more going on. The pleading repetition of the title in "You Still Have Me" comes off as more of a mounting intensity of sorrow than merely an echo. It's particularly evident when coupled with the cyclical guitar and piano riffs in the background that seem to mimic the momentum of running into a wall over and over again.
Clearly adding a significant layer to the record this time around is the production of Christopher Sandes, who took those reins in addition to duties on piano, organ, and acoustic and electric guitar. Ethier's voice has long garnered comparisons to early Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, and it's certainly something you cannot miss on any of his records. However, unlike the first solo album, the beautiful production on this album should be a feature all its own. Despite this, there's still an obvious preference towards first-take authenticity over finished song structures, and it becomes daunting by the second half of the record. "In With the Prim" is preoccupied by a mishmash of cymbals run amok alongside elementary rhyme patterns that unfortunately pair things like "Out with the Ayn Rand-ers" with "Out with the fag sandlers." Similarly, listeners will find themselves scratching their heads at the confusing and played-out metaphor in "Now I Wanna Be Your Dad".
If the last two solo records are any indication, and given last summer's final resting for the Deadly Snakes, Ethier's brawler days are behind him now, seemingly just as he secures his spot at the end of the bar with the other storytellers. Even better is the proof here that Ethier's distinctive voice gets even greater with the proper background surrounding it.