Maple leaf music

When I was in high school, in the mid-90s just outside Detroit, one of the two local radio stations playing new, largely guitar-based music heavily influenced by the late 80s college rock scene and thus known as “alternative” — “standard” rock being 70s bands and their 80s hard rock/hair metal progeny — was CIMX 88.7 FM. 88.7, which promoted themselves as 89X, was actually based across the Detroit River in Windsor Ontario, and was obligated by Canadian regulation to play at least 15% Canadian content.

Thus, along with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Beck, and other MTV-friendly bands, the soundtrack of my teen years included early exposure to a number of Canadian artists like The Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan who went on to get broad exposure in the U.S., and a number of other Canadian groups who never quite crossed over.

Sloan is a Halifax, Nova Scotia group whose first album, Smeared, was released in 1992, and is still recording today. Their first single, “Underwhelmed,” is a pretty good place to start.

While there’s good stuff here and there all through Sloan’s two decades, the essential discs are 1994’s Twice Removed, 1996’s One Chord To Another, and 1998’s Navy Blues. (It’s actually kind of downhill from there.) There’s so much to love on those three albums, “Money City Maniacs,” “Coax Me,” “The Good In Everyone,” “Deeper Than Beauty,” but my sentimental favorite (and part two of the emerging theme) is “Snowsuit Sound.”

Pure was a Vancouver group with a name that’s surprisingly difficult to publicize. It’s simple, yes, and easy to spell, but everyone always thinks that you’re talking about The Cure. (“Pure.” “The Cure?” “No, Pure.” “What?” Ugh.)

Pure actually thanks 89X in the liner notes to their album Generation Six-Pack, and while “Anna Is a Speed Freak” got more airplay, “Lemonade” stands as the best example of the sub-genre that so appealed to me as a teenager: The Bored Love Song. Characterized by a laid-back musical vibe, a passive narrator, and a subject who is both unattainable and yet close by, the Bored Love Song is a tribute to a certain idealized non-idealized passion. That is, the Bored Love Song takes place entirely in the narrator’s head — to the point, perhaps, where the narrator’s self-involvement might actually preclude a relationship when the subject of the narrator’s affection actually feels some interest as well, as in “Underwhelmed.” There’s also a distinct undertone that the narrator’s interest is motivated in large part by the lack of anything better to do (thus the “bored” component of the Bored Love Song). The Bored Love Song is more about the urgency of being in love, particularly in the absence of a suitable love object, than it is about love itself. And, in fairness, given the level of self-involvement, any observation on lack of suitability is probably better applied to the narrator than to the ostensible subject. The urgency in question is the urgency of being in love, even if one is not capable of an actual relationship. And what better description of adolescence can you get than that?

At the same time, the Bored Love Song is never about a distant subject — it’s never a song about a cheerleader or someone else who exists in a different adolescent social sphere than the narrator. The subject of the Bored Love Song is always someone the narrator interacts with regularly, and every interaction is weighted with the significance that comes from secret, unimparted knowledge, every word an unspoken “I love you.” (Good counterexamples might be Nada Surf’s “Popular” — an outsider’s ironic view of the dating mores of the higher adolescent social echelons — and Wheatus’s (slightly later) “Teenage Dirtbag” — in which the popular subject who “doesn’t know who I am” deigns to lower herself to a [more authentic] participation in the narrator’s lower social sphere. It’s also worth noting that like the Iron Maiden reference in “Teenage Dirtbag,” a lot of American “alternative” music maintains closer ties to “standard” rock, while the Canadian bands under examination here draw more influence from 60s pop. Well, at least until Navy Blues, when Sloan starts to delve a lot more into the 70s, which is, I think, one of the big reasons why they start to go downhill, but anyway.)

The last three bands I’ll touch on quickly have remained petty obscure, but each have at least a song or two you should hear at least once. The first, Hayden, fits best into the Bored Love Song subgenre. Slow, languid acoustic guitar, the declaration that things are indeed “As Bad As They Seem,” being in love with a 16-year-old AND her mom. This song is adolescent crack.

“First Day of Spring” by The Gandharvas is less of a love song, per se, but is a good total fit both musically and lyrically with the other Canadian bands discussed here. This version of the song is from the album Soap Bubble & Inertia, of which I could never find a copy. They re-recorded “First Day of Spring” with more electric guitar for the album Sold For a Smile, which has some catchy stuff, but is louder, faster, and altogether more American. (If it weren’t for the crescendo in the last third of the original version, it could almost be a Shins song before the band.)

Finally, I know nothing about The Super Friendz, and “Karate Man” was only ever played during 89X’s Sunday evening “Canadian Imports” block, which was a way to fulfill as much of the station’s required Canadian content in as dead a block of air time as possible. Of course, it was the best part of the week, and this poppy, sunny, awesome non sequitur of a song has always stuck with me.

Of course, one could do a totally separate post on The Tragically Hip (god, I loved “Ahead By a Century”), but as they were never bored and hardly adolescent, I’ll leave them to another writer on another day.

3 thoughts on “Maple leaf music

  1. August says:

    I was about to write an indignant post about how none of these bands are obscure, but then remembered I’m Canadian, so my perspective differs a great deal. Great post!

  2. Gavin Craig says:

    Obscurity is indeed a relative term. For example, I don’t think anyone who knew me in college could consider Sloan obscure. I’m sure a couple of my guitar-playing friends even remember a song or two. (I still have my Pure t-shirt.)

    Thanks for the comment, and if there’s anything really critical I missed, feel free to add a link. 🙂

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