The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum
Released January 22nd, 2016 on Jagjaguwar Records
The Montreal-based six-piece The Besnard Lakes have by now a rather lengthy history of putting out solid, if at times uninspired, new entries into the pop-prog canon. A Coliseum Complex Museum is no exception. The band mercifully dials back the song lengths that mired 2013’s Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO in a swamp of listener fatigue, cutting them down to a sort of fighting weight that they rarely have achieved elsewhere in their discography. Stylistically it’s a throwback to their best album, 2010’s The Roaring Night: “The Bray Road Beast” and “Golden Lion” could both stand beside such luminaries as “Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent Pt. 2” and “Last Train To Chicago” in relative ease. In a way that’s both the ultimate strength and the ultimate drawback of the record. It’s familiar and easy to slip into, like a pair of worn slippers, but they’re slippers that are starting to get a little thin in the sole, a little ratty along the sides. The Besnard Lakes have proven that they can do this sort of thing easily, but now they need to think about changing it up a bit, or risk an ignominious stagnation.
Canada is best known for its winter – this is an undeniable fact to anyone who’s ever had to live through one. What many outside of the country don’t realize is that Canada isn’t a snowbound wonderland of Bonhomme de Neige and frozen maple syrup hockey pucks 365 days of the year. The inhabited parts of the country also get hot, sticky summers for several months. For some, the hot weather provides an impetus to “get away from it all”, whether it be on vacation to a natural wonder like Niagara Falls or just to go north and hang out on the dock of the cottage all day. For others, the summer is a magical time in the city, where the clothes and pretensions come off and that keening je ne sais quoi drives you further into the core in search of love, life, and the pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs in this list reflect that: part dock rockin’ good times, part hot-town-summer-in-the-city, all north of the 49th.
Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams
Once upon a very long time ago (the 1980s) Bryan Adams was a Canadian teen heartthrob who represented the northern vanishing point between Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. He later became briefly famous for a featured power ballad in that one movie where Kevin Costner plays Robin Hood but can’t be bothered to master an English accent. Northern audiences know him best, however, for this ode to being young and full of rock ‘n’ roll dreams in that most fabled of Boomer summers, the summer of 1969. Adams, of course, was ten in the summer of 1969 – the song was co-written and largely about Jim Vallance, a Canadian songwriter and producer who was 17 in that same year.
Working For The Weekend – Loverboy
“Working For The Weekend” is the ultimate “get out of the city up to the cottage” jam, and one that classic rock radio in Canada pumps out nonstop once the snow melts. How could it not be? That early-80s vintage production drives those drums right at you, and the synths say “wouldn’t you rather be relaxing by the water with a cold beer in your hand”? Meanwhile you’re stuck in the office, staring at the spreadsheet for the Warner account while freaking Janice is microwaving fish again despite the fact that you put a freaking sign up. Don’t worry. Loverboy has your back.
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – Arcade Fire
The best song Blondie never wrote is also the song that best encapsulates the yearning our suburban youth feel when the summer comes and the spires of the city rise out of the hazy horizon to beckon. While much of Arcade Fire’s third album is about Win Butler’s youth in the suburbs of Houston, the last full song on the album is Regine Chassagne’s ode to the siren call of Montreal as seen by someone wasting away in boredom. “Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,” they say, but she wants something more: to dance through the streets of a vibrant, urgent metropolis, to feel the summer sun as it bakes the masses in the streets, to find herself and others like her before the snow comes to lock everything up again.
The Spirit of Radio – Rush
Written in honour of CFNY – Toronto’s once-mighty 102.1 The Edge – “The Spirit of Radio” captures the feeling of driving down the highway with the windows all the way down and the radio cranked. The wind blowing back your hair and whipping at your face, the music drowning out all conversation and thought, the endless road stretching out before you with all of its crackling potential energy yet to be consumed: all of this is spoken of in that initial rush of synths, drums, and guitars. Plus, it’s Rush – one of the few bands that the average American can point to and say “oh yeah, they’re from Canada”.
Raise A Little Hell – Trooper
Personally it’s between this and “Boys In The Bright White Sports Car”, but “Raise A Little Hell” is definitely more ubiquitous. The anthem of hellraisers the world over, the song is the perfect soundtrack for getting deep into it at the cottage, around the fire, or pretty much anywhere in this great wide country. Just remember, though, to raise only a little hell; this is Canada, after all, and we must maintain a veneer of decorum even when the rye bottle is nearing empty.
Tornado ’87 – The Rural Alberta Advantage
Let’s stop here for a moment to consider the slightly darker side of Canadian summers. The hot, sticky days are fun, but when they turn ugly it’s often quick and vicious. Many places throughout Canada are susceptible to tornados, including where I grew up, and they’re a fact of life children have to learn about alongside fire safety and not pulling Uncle Joey’s finger. The center square of the picturesque port town of Goderich, Ontario was demolished by one such storm. “Tornado ’87”, meanwhile, from the band’s second album Departing, chronicles the storm that struck at Edmonton on July 31st, 1987.
Patio Lanterns – Kim Mitchell
Here’s the thing: there are objectively better Kim Mitchell songs (“Go For A Soda”, “A Million Vacations”) but none of them capture the spirit of summer as a blossoming awkward teenager quite so well as “Patio Lanterns”. It’s actually quite a horrific song, in it’s way. It depicts a summer patio party attended by a bunch of shy and nervous adolescents, the kind of hell everyone’s parents shoved them into when they wanted to go off with their adult friends to do adult things, like drinking wine and finishing sentences before getting corrected by a goddamn know-it-all.
Drunk Teenagers – The Joel Plaskett Emergency
The Halifax native’s ode to youth and getting wasted at a bush party is quintessentially Canadian. It is a rite of summer for the kids in and around the rural parts of the country to disappear into the woods on the weekend with cases of beer and rye and get smashed. For certain swaths of the population, it’s true that you did it, your kids are doing it, and their kids will do it too. Plaskett even gives specific directions for where he did it: Clayton Park is a suburb of Halifax, and the Ashtray Rock is apparently a real place in the woods near Clayton Park where many a drunken night of shenanigans took place.
Echo Beach – Martha and the Muffins
This international New Wave hit wasn’t about any particular beach (although it may have been inspired by a night Mark Gane spent at Sunnyside Beach in Toronto in the fabled year of 1977) it was about every beach. It’s a song about being an office drone in a boring job, watching the clock slowly tick down towards five o’clock and wanting to be anywhere else. It’s the reality for everyone working in the summer, and thus it’s the premiere anthem for everyone looking forward to the weekend cottage getaway on a Wednesday.
Soda – Gob
I WANT TO JUMP IN A LAKE! SUN SHINING DOWN ON THE BEACH IN THE SUMMER! I WANT TO JUMP IN A LAKE! It’s self-explanatory, really. The British Columbia band’s teenage symphony to the sun struck a chord with sun-seekers in 1995, many of whom went on to emulate the song’s simple message of jumping in lakes in the summer. Fun fact: the video for this song was shot by an amateur on 16mm and got shot into heavy rotation by the once-great MuchMusic.
Five Days In May – Blue Rodeo
Summer is the time for romance – forget spring, it’s all about finding love under the scorching sun, or maybe while taking shelter from a fragrant rain storm. Blue Rodeo knew this quite well, and “Five Days In May” is a wistful, nostalgic alt-country hymn to summer flings and the lasting memories that they create. It’s also perfect for singing around the campfire, or for just putting on the stereo while you relax in the yard and watch the sun set into the haze of the horizon. Crickets required, mosquitoes optional for the masochists.
Summer Dress – July Talk
The summer months can get sticky and they can get gritty. People get desperate and they can get crazy with the heat. “Summer Dress” is all about that – getting tangled up in love and leaving for the city to do dumb things without thinking much about them. The riff that the song rides is pure grit, a rock ‘n’ roll punch in the gut that sounds like the sweat pouring off of you in a dark, loud rock club in the height of July.
This Beat Goes On/Switching To Glide – The Kings
A party-ready rock ‘n’ roll song that will get things going whether you’re at the cottage, stuck in commute, or trying to convince your boss that five o’clock really means four, or better yet, three. After all, nothing matters but the weekend from a Tuesday point of view. It’s a Stones-inspired stomp that layers on the keyboards for that extra-summery effect, and then it switches into an even better groovy summer jam. If this hybrid mutant of a song doesn’t play from your radio at least once while you’re reclining with a drink in your hand, you’re doing it wrong.
Come For A Ride – By Divine Right
For some of us, summer is all about getting in the car and just, like, going somewhere, man. “Come For A Ride” captures that blissful feeling. You’re bored, it’s summer, there’s nothing to do – and suddenly your friends show up at the door with a car and no particular place to go. It’s breezy, relaxing, and perfect for cruising around. Also of particular note is the presence of Brendan Canning on bass and Leslie Feist on guitar, both of whom would go on to seminal Canadian indie outfit Broken Social Scene.
Sun – Caribou
A pulsing electronic slice of summer, and one in which Dan Snaith makes things as clear as possible: the song’s lyrics consist of the word “sun” repeated endlessly. When it comes right down to it, that’s all we really ask out of summer. Some of us will point to the cottage, and fishing, swimming, hiking, etc. Some of us will point to the city, and patios, hazy streets, exposed skin, and magic in the parks. Either way, though, what we want out of summer is the sun. We want that big, constantly exploding ball of nuclear fusion way out in space to light up our lives and heat our days, so that we can enjoy them to the fullest.
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
Women were Calgary’s premier alt-noise band, and when guitarist Chris Reimer died mysteriously in 2012 it was a huge blow, breaking up the band at a time when they were a hot topic amongst the indie blog literati. Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace are now part of Viet Cong, another project that fuses noisy art explosions with GBV and Joy Division-esque lo-fi pop sounds. Throughout much of the album they seem on the verge of falling apart, a shuddering makeshift weld-job of Jesus and Mary Chain guitar fuzz, thundering drums a la A Place To Bury Strangers, and the deathly vocals of Flegel. This last is where some of the influences become obvious; Flegel’s voice is strongly reminiscent of both Ian Curtis and Spencer Krug, and the gloomy surroundings only serve to strengthen those comparisons. Viet Cong is an album of what modern bands consider retro post-punk: gloomy, semi-gothy atmospheres with big drums and keyboards that wouldn’t sound quite out of place on a Sisters of Mercy track. Everything comes to head on the final track, “Death”, where the threatened breakdown finally occurs about seven minutes in, a collapse into bashed-out noise-chords after an intense, speaker-rattling build-up. It’s assuredly a strong debut, likely a contender for year-end lists, and absolutely a recommended listen.
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The Polaris Shortlist has been announced, so I’ll be going over each group in more detail over the next few days. For right now, the list is as follows:
Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite
Metric – Synthetica
METZ – METZ
Purity Ring – Shrines
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation
Whitehorse – The Fate Of The World Depends On This Kiss
Young Galaxy – Ultramarine
I’ll have more thoughts on each of these albums over the next little bit. Stay tuned. Or don’t. I’m not your boss.