Monday, September 17, 2007

Twelve Best Rheostatics Moments

The world's most iconoclastic rock band has called it a day after thirteen albums. Here's what you missed. Bear in mind that most days I don't even like rock music. But every now and then (say every two decades) a band comes along to reaffirm my faith. Did I just say "faith"? Must be the banana beer (not recommended).

"Late nights make me really tired / all this jamming gives me a headache."
"The Ballad of Wendel Clark Parts I and II" brilliantly encapsulates the band's obsession with Canada's national game, lacrosse hockey. It's boppy, it's happy, it's got great guitar bits and silly vocals from all the boys, while quoting from the real national anthem (the "Hockey Night In Canada" theme) and the Sex Pistols. It's the only song they bothered keeping in their set from their debut album Greatest Hits -- a wise decision. The best recorded version is on Double Live, which throws in further references (eg: beer jingles). Even this pales compared to what it could be live. Was I the only one waiting for Parts III and IV?

"There's a Lenny in my Kravitz that must be removed"
Night of the Shooting Stars is the album that most illustrates the band's rockist tendencies -- not something I think needs to be encouraged. "These Days Are Good For the Canadian Conservative Youth Party Alliance" is no different, but lyrics like "when the sun goes down on the flat Edmonton streets / you will seek normal pleasure / there are sports teams with cheerleaders who double as hookers / you will seek normal pleasure" more than redress the balance.

"I tried to sing a simple song / but the metaphor was ten feet long"
"The Latest Attempt On Your Life" is the hilariously self-conscious ditty in which the female BV sings "everyone hates you, you sing like a woman". How brilliant is that? 2067 is the band's most "together" album, one of their finest productions, and the one that makes me sure the world would have been better had Michael Phillip Wojewoda produced all their stuff. He is immaculate and emphasises detail; the Rheostatics' complexity needs that. Unfortunately for us, it was also the final album.

"The sky dreamed a cloud's death / when you spoke I saw your breath"
The Story of Harmelodia is a children's story and album, the kind of thing I would certainly be feeding children if anyone entrusted them to me (which is likely why they don't, now that I think about it). I chose a lyric from "The Sky Dreamed" but this entire album is my pick since everything works, from Janet Morassutti's narration to Sarah Harmer's lead vocals (female lead on a Rheos album -- wow!) to the lovely book with some of Martin Tielli's incredible illustrations.

"I would have used it to paint the picture I'm seeing now."
"Queer" is one of Bidini's finest moment. Actually, he could have died happy after writing this symphony of teen rebellion and family turmoil. I love how he manages to rhythm "arm" and "warm", the cute vocal refrain on "pitch" and the way the drums and piano merge into a single instrument in the middle break. Still, it's hard to pick just one song from the brilliant Whale Music, so I won't.

"Mum and dad are selfless / and they don't do nothing worthless / they just work all day and worry about their son / 'What went wrong with Martin / Is he dumb?'"
"Self-Serve Gas Station" starts with country-tinged pianissimo, capturing the anguish of a dead-end job. Before it finishes it expands it into something far more universal, tightly-controlled melodic guitar squealing out into the night. "No-one said this would be easy / but no-one said this would be hell." Been there, Martin.

"Though I haven't got that drunk yet"
"Dead Is The Drunkest That You Can Get" is a bittersweet satire from Double Live, the album in which The Rheostatics put across some of the very best versions of their songs, many of them much better interpretations than the studio versions. Those who never saw this group live may be amazed that the complex arrangements, violent mood swings and impeccable playing could happen anywhere but in the most sophisticated studio environment. But, yes folks, this really happened. Regularly.

"What is a monster to do, when your teeth are so young and your tongue is for licking?"
"Shaved Head" is chilling, compelling and utterly mystifying in that particular Tielli way. I think it might be about a cancer victim. Don't know. The guitars weave a web of sound, delicate cushions for the naked subject. And like him, this song demands attention. Like pretty well the entirety of "Whale Music".

"Now it's time to close my eyes / to sail away and photosynthesise"
"Earth / Monstrous Hummingbirds" is some sort of apocalyptic ecological nightmare, or maybe a gorgeous evolutionary fable. It is perhaps the fishiest track on Introducing Happiness, swaying between whispered niceties and pounding guitars. How anyone arranges a song (two songs? three songs?) like this is beyond me.

"If someone had won we'd have heard long ago / No-one wins."
"Row" is a simple melodic ditty, including a bit of pseudo-yodeling from Tim Vesely and falsetto Martinisms. It has a beauty that tugs at the heartstrings and, when it loosens them, uses them to construct a kite that is then flown into the silvered night.

"Someone in class called me a loser / decided to skip the day"
"Record Body Count" takes under two minutes of Melville to unfold, but in that time manages to illuminate the issue of teen suicide without explicating anything at all. They revisited this theme more directly on "Beerbash", but "Record Body Count" is so elliptical it comes right back around the curve into realism. After all, who talks about suicide in high school? The song often gets laughs live, but these are the laughs of embedded insecurities. The last song the band ever played -- a noble choice.

"If I be the crane / If you be the site inspector."
With Rheostatics you always get a good epic to close an album. "A Midwinter Night's Dream" is the best of the lot, a dreamy conclusion to The Blue Hysteria, which opens up into some sort of a conspiracy theory about drowning under ice, building sites and sabotage. It chills me to the bone and gets me very happy at the same time. Excuse me, did someone just say genius?

Visit Martin Tielli, Dave Bidini, the official Rheostatics site, the live recordings base or the USA page, which has the lyrics.

You can support this great band and me at the same time by buying from Amazon. Whale Music tops surveys of Canadian Music time after time. Buy it here:
 buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

The Story of Harmelodia is the best children's album/book ever:
 buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

And finally, something available to those in the UK, where the band is completely unknown and mostly unavailable. The final Rheostatics album is the most consistent and palatable, but still taps into their quirky world view and humour. Do yourself a favour -- get 2067:
buy from Amazon buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

"Sweet sweet silence / I'm already gone."



snowsim said...

I frequently have to explain how I can dislike rock yet adore the Rheostatics. (It's only recently that I could again listen to them since they ended quit it all, my mourning was that great.) But now I can just point to your fabulous post for anyone who needs an introduction. You hit it perfectly.

With perhaps one omission, from a Canadian viewpoint: "Northern Wish" from The Group of 7 album.
"And we don't need mathematics.
We don't need submarines
To tell how far the land does go
Until it hits the shore."

Don Kerr's forceful cello (and a double bass) supports Martin Tielli's soaring voice and gradually the other instruments join in to paint a magnificent portrait/map.

Group Of Seven on CBC National - Rheostatics piece on YouTube

Writing from Alberta, across the prairie spine...

robin said...

I started off with 10 choices and ended up writing 12... even then a thirteenth addition like yours is very welcome. And there are many more. Hey, folks, keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

Boy, do I have a lot to say about this! I don't need to tell you how much Rheos mean to me, Robin! Now just to write it down...

-- p

robin said...

Paul has now posted his own very personal appreciation on his blog. Thanks man!

Unknown said...

Just a brief defense of Night of the Shooting Stars - I became a rabid fan because of that rocking record. It seemed to me a reaffirmation that Canada does that actually melodic but seriously heavy rock really well - Permanent Waves through to the Weakerthans. I grew to love the rest, but that stuff pulled me in ears first, and I'm so glad. (insert Secret Devil Sign here)

Nice post.

robin said...

Three years later I come back to answer and agree with you Jep. It took me longer than usual, but I came around to love Shooting Stars as well.

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