Snapshots from the Old Country

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the Craven Hermit has roots in the centre of Canada.  The 204.  The friendly place of a hundred thousand lakes.  The great province of Manitoba.  I always tell people – it’s a great place to be from.  Something of a back-handed compliment maybe, but it’s true.  Manitobans are almost universally good people, as keenly interested in arts and sports and looking out for their friends and neighbours as they are in slogging through another week down at the mill.

The population of the nearest town to our farm, according to various maps, was listed at 52.  The value 52 seemed to be invariant for a long time.  The old joke was “Every time a baby is born, some guy skips town”.  The town, for what it’s worth, was a grain elevator, a Co-Op store, two stop signs, and a hockey rink.  We lived out in the sticks; we literally had to drive towards town to go hunting.  And if you’ve ever been to the Red River Valley, you know that undulating topography isn’t its strong suit.  The place is flatter than warm milk on a plate.  If your dog runs away, you can watch him run for days.  If you’ve seen the movie Fargo and remember William H. Macy’s character cruising the backroads of Minnesota in the dead of winter in his Oldsmobile, then you’ll get the picture.

The Weakerthans are a rock band that is based in the provincial capital of Winnipeg.  Recently, as a diversion from the band’s usual rigamarole, principal songwriter John K. Samson set out to write a series of songs about various places in Manitoba.  According to this interview with The Onion’s AV Club, the goal was to try to capture the spirit of places in music.  Not an easy thing to do.  Writing rock songs about cars and girls and partying – hell, even Poison could pull that off (and they were completely terrible!).  Writing compelling songs about the wind-swept Trans Canada Highway and Reggie Leach and Icelandic immigrants – that’s a tougher challenge.

Samson’s latest project started out as a series of 7″ records, but they morphed into one long-play record called Provincial that was released last Tuesday.  I haven’t had a chance to give it enough listens to formulate a proper review, but at first blush it seems like a very cool collection of songs.  Some are snapshots of life in the city of Winnipeg, but Samson also takes a variety of diversions down roads less travelled.  The tone is a little more laid-back than typical Weakerthans fare (power-pop infused alt-rock with a literary bent).  But in a way, the stripped-down sonics lend themselves to capturing the sparseness of the Manitoba countryside.

The AV Club asked Samson about the recent trend of major labels losing their grip on the music industry, and how independent labels have stepped into the breach to deliver smaller, more esoteric records to the public.  Samson’s quote was very thoughtful:

Since I’ve started recording music, there’s been an incredible democratization of the means of production. People can make records in their houses now, and they sound incredible. That was just not possible 20 years ago, when I recorded the first record I was on. I think the Internet has this potential for a great force of artistic good in the world (…) The means are more readily available to folks than they ever were. It’s an exciting time to be a writer and a musician.

He sounds very optimistic about his lot in life, and with any luck Provincial will be a success that propels him forward.  The music world needs writers that seek to explore the spirit of rural life more than ever.  Most small towns are shrinking, quickly, as kids move away to seek their fortunes (ahem) and parents retire to the bigger cities.  It’s comforting to know that someone as accomplished as John K. Samson still cares enough to capture vignettes of small towns in song.


Upcoming Music Releases – January 2012

10 January 2012

Snow Patrol – Fallen Empires

The heart-on-sleeve British alt-pop-rockers’ latest album gets a North American release, after receiving positive reviews in the UK and elsewhere.  This time out, production duties are handled by Jacknife Lee, who last paired up with main Snow Patroller Gary Lightbody and friends for their Tired Pony side-project.  The deluxe edition of Fallen Empires includes a ten-song DVD recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall.

Jellyfish – Bellybutton and Spilt Milk

The San Franciscans’ immaculate power-pop gems from the early 1990s, long out of print, are set to be re-released.  On vinyl!  If you have always wanted to know what the Beach Boys would sound like with alt rock guitars, buy these albums and revel in the unadulterated joy.  More hooks than a tackle box.

24 January 2012

Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes

The Hold Steady’s front man steps away from the day job to release a ‘solo’ album.  Reportedly recorded in Austin, TX last year, expect this album to sound considerably less polished than the Hold Steady’s E-Street Band affectations.

John K. Samson – Provincial

Ditto for The Weakerthans’ front man.  Advance word is that Provincial is a road album, telling stories about places and characters along Manitoba’s highways and byways.  Like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska with a poetic flair.  Samson once perfectly captured the essence of a small-town curling rink with “Tournament of Hearts” – I’m excited to see what he comes up with on the barren back roads of my homeland.

31 January 2012

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Septuagenarian, one-time Buddhist monk, and Canadian musical legend returns with a new studio album as a follow-up to his well-received 2008-2010 tour.  The tour was documented in an exceptional DVD recorded at the O2 Arena in London; it’s a master-class in slow-burning musical passion, while Cohen has 20,000 enraptured concert goers in the palm of his hand.

Gotye – Making Mirrors

You’ve probably heard the new single “Somebody That I Used To Know” on modern rock radio by now.  The full album from Belgium’s (by way of Australia) Wally de Backer gets a release at the end of January.  A cover version of the cool first single (see link below) has recently gone viral.