The Tragically Miffed

Matthew McKean

Canada's Barenaked Ladies make some of today's best, most relevant protest music. No, really.

Once, protest singers looked and sounded a lot alike: Acoustic guitars and harmonicas, caustic poetry about social injustice, and billows of cigarette smoke turned the '60s into a golden age of protest music. But much changed in the decades that followed. In the '80s, the target of musical dissent switched from civil rights and Vietnam to apartheid and famine. The iconic, shaggy haired folk singer, whose songs were supposed to change the world, gave way to pop-star collectives who believed they were the world.

Now, with global terrorism and warming, an eerily familiar military quagmire in Iraq, and dire situations in Africa, today’s protest singers still have much to draw upon for inspiration. At the moment, though, protest music occupies an awkward space in popular culture. It’s no longer the subculture it once was, and rather than increasing its power, this mainstreaming has blurred the lines and muffled the message. It probably doesn’t help either that the instruments are plugged in now, the lyrics are sleeker, and smoking will kill you.

Canada, too, has a legacy to impart from the '60s, but I’m fairly certain that Gordon, Joni, and Neil didn’t intend to pass the mantle on to Céline, Shania, and Nickelback. Their heirs are the likes of Sarah Harmer and Ron Sexsmith, Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, Danny Michel and Andy Stochansky, David Francey and Craig Cardiff, Jenny Whiteley and Jim Bryson, Great Lake Swimmers, Stars, and the Weakerthans, to name a few.

But we shouldn't also forget the Barenaked Ladies. You may think, aren't the Barenaked Ladies that harmless novelty band from Canada? What would they have to do with protest music? For anyone paying attention, though, the Barenaked Ladies have become one of North America’s most vital critics and social commentators, not to mention one of Canada’s most prolific bands. But they needed to gain commercial success first (singing, incidentally, about Chinese chicken and chimpanzees should do the trick) before they could mention that the rest of their music actually happens to be about something. To aim high, they’ve had to lay low.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that there's a great deal more to the Barenaked Ladies than their early-90s kitsch. Obviously, their earliest songs helped shape who they’ve become. Sort of like how Grade 9, however awkward and tragically unfashionable it was for you, played some role in making you who you are now, however awkward and tragically unfashionable you turned out to be. But where many musicians descend into complacency, the Barenaked Ladies have gone to considerable effort to remain relevant. They’ve developed a social conscience. They’re outspoken on political, social, and environmental issues relevant to Canadians. Steven Page, the band’s lead singer, has even been a vocal participant in Canada’s New Democratic Party. The band’s ‘Barenaked Planet’ project is an effort to minimize the band’s environmental footprint while on tour. They have performed at relief concerts for SARS, Musicians Without Borders, Live 8, and Toronto’s AIDS conference. And through the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, which they helped form, they’ve been instrumental in obligating the Canadian government to be more culturally aware.

It's easy to miss all this activism, though. Traditionally, the Barenaked Ladies could be relied upon to release one or two radio-friendly songs on each album, to appease labels, no doubt, and sell records to your hockey-jersey-wearing buddies, but balanced the rest of their albums with intelligent, observant songs on important issues. Getting their message out, though, ultimately depends on our actually listening to what they’re saying, at the shows and with the headphones on. And a main part of their protest is that we’re not listening anymore, at least not to what we don’t want to hear.

Consider lines from "Testing 1,2,3" from Everything to Everyone (2003):

Testing 1-2-3 can anybody hear me?

If I shed the irony would everybody cheer me

If I acted less like me would I be in the clear?

She got a new apartment out on the escarpment

In her glove compartment are my songs

She hasn’t even heard them since she found out what the words meant

She decided she preferred them all wrong

Those who love a band or artist often couldn’t tell you what any of their songs are about. And those who dismiss a band or artist are often guilty of the same. We seem to care far more about what we see than about what we hear.

When the Barenaked Ladies released their greatest hits album in 2001, they included a new song on it at the end called "Thanks, That Was Fun", about a youthful boyfriend-girlfriend relationship ending. It’s essentially about ironic nostalgia, yet in interviews at the time they were constantly being asked if it meant that the band was done. The same sort of people were asking them three years earlier whether their song "Alcohol" wasn’t irresponsibly promoting drinking. Once again, they had missed the irony.

Fewer and fewer of us are listening to one another, though, let alone to the deeper social meaning of songs, which is why so many artists and bands are able to get away without having any meaning at all. It’s why you might recall the retro-diner video for “Pinch Me”, from the Maroon (2000) album, but not the lyrics to “Sell, Sell, Sell”:

Buy buy buy buy

Sell Sell Sell

How well you learn to not discern

Who’s foe and who is friend

We’ll own them all in the end

It goes like this, we have no choice; the minarets,

The wailing voice and vaguely Celtic music fills the air

We choose a foreigner to hate,

The new Iraq gets more irate

We really know nothing about them, and no one cares.

And this record came out a year before September 11. Hear what they have to say five years later. In “Fun and Games”, from this year’s Barenaked Ladies Are Men, Steven Page sings in the ironic first-person:

We sent in the army, they sounded alarms

We saw it coming from a mile away

We kept it off the radar

‘Cause we had to say our intentions were to save the day

Why did you fail to see?

It was a gag, it was all for a laugh

They were shocked and they were awed and they were blown in half

Later in the same song:

We just got reelected

In a while our bill of rights will be rejected,

And the blame will be deflected,

The forests will be unprotected,

The nation’s poor will be neglected,

Creation myth is resurrected,

The new salute is genuflected,

The Gallup poll will be respected,

A gallows pole will be erected

And all this will go undetected …

It was all for a laugh

And now our very nation has been blown in half

It’s all a game now, the majority are losing, but we continue to play along. In songs like this one, the band is pleading with us to snap out of our collective haze. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the Barenaked Ladies have become frustrated, exhausted, even a bit exasperated by the extent to which so many of us now blindly consume ideas and anxieties, prejudices and merchandise in lieu of thinking critically about our nation’s foreign policies, let alone our own well-being, and that of others.

The tone of Everything to Everyone, as Steven Page said at the time, was about how dangerous it is to separate ourselves from those around us and from the world in general. A song on the album called “War on Drugs” details the need to preserve lives, to help people out of suicide rather than prevent them from being able to commit it. About the song’s meaning, Steven Page would explain that setting up social and political safety nets, literally and figuratively, doesn’t solve problems. But that fighting for one another’s sanity might be a good place to start.

As it turns out, music can alert us to the infelicities of North American politics and environmental policies, and to conditions in the Third World. It can help us to question our involvement in the Middle East or the propaganda campaigns encouraging people to shop. More generally, it can point out the fact that there’s too much madness in the world; too much disease and poverty; too much pollution; that people are needlessly dying or killing themselves. But most important, perhaps, despite all of these things, it can remind us that there’s still a great deal of beauty in the world, in each of our own little worlds.

If these things don’t resonate with you, if you still think the Barenaked Ladies are all about having a million dollars and a bunch of really fast rhymes, then maybe it’s time to start listening a little closer. Even if, as the band sings in "Helicopters", "a world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer".

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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