eMusic Yearbook: 2003
Datelines Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal circa 2003: Something happened in the asymmetrical four corners of Canada. We don’t know what it was, but it was perpetrated by Canadians – who are not unlike Americans but, as their socialized medicine, relative humility and widespread knowledge of French make clear, are not like Americans at all. Throughout the ’90s, Canada was viewed as an indie-rock backwater, home to oddball outfits – DIY-folk duo Mecca Normal, psych-guitar heavies Eric’s Trip, apocalyptic orchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor, to name a few – and local scenes that occasionally made fanzine headlines in the States. At the dawn of the 21st century, however, the border opened to a flood of bands united by one thing: They had the same passports.
In order to understand the avalanche of bands that thundered down from the Great White North in 2003, it’s necessary to hurdle a language barrier: What Americans rush to call a supergroup, their Canadian counterparts deem, in self-effacing fashion, a “collective.” It started with the New Pornographers, the seven- or eight-piece Vancouver outfit led by singer/guitarist Carl Newman. A veteran of Superconductor and Zumpano, Newman assembled the Pornographers for acclaimed 2000 debut Mass Romantic in 2000, an unrelenting blur of big pop hooks and choruses buoyed by brassy American alt-country vocalist Neko Case and eccentric singer/songwriter Dan Bejar (who also records under the name Destroyer). With 2003 follow-up Electric Version, all the New Pornographers had to do was wear the crown; it rested comfortably on eight heads dreaming up a concoction of giddy new wave and old baroque-pop arrangements. Electric Version isn’t taken at the sugar-rush pace of its predecessor, and the effect is to make the melodic fireworks more explosive. “The Laws Have Changed” somehow strings together three choruses before erupting with a Beach Boys falsetto, while “July Jones” manages to be a pining and mournful tune despite its major chords and group singalongs.
As if competing with the New Pornographers to determine the maximum onstage capacity at Lee’s Palace, Broken Social Scene seemed to network with the entire city of Toronto. Main members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning oversaw a supergroup-in-training with You Forgot It In People (first issued in 2002 but given widespread release in ’03), enlisting both rank-and-file local musicians as well as fame-bound vocalists Leslie Feist and Metric’s Emily Haines. People is the work of an experimental pop band, one as comfortable with post-rock as musique concrete and willing to sacrifice cohesion for a sprawling collection of songs that hang together with a mellow haziness. Broken Social Scene spawned a label (Arts & Crafts) and solo albums (most notably, those by Canning and Drew), but You Forgot It In People is its enduring document: the record thousands of kids took to college, listened to on long drives, heard at parties winding down as the sun is coming up.
While armies of Canadians figuratively invaded American indie rock, American armies actually invaded Iraq. Faint, early traces of protest can be found in Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, the second album by Toronto’s Metric. “All we do is talk, sit, switch screens as the homeland plans enemies,” sings frontwoman Emily Haines on “Succexxy.” Metric established itself as a more synth-pop friendly Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and hit single “Combat Baby” effectively blurs the line between the political and personal. Winnipeg’s the Weakerthans play to the same theme on Reconstruction Site as singer/guitarist John K. Samson ponders, “How we waste our precious time/Marching in the picket lines,” a seeming dismissal of his time spent in anarchist punk outfit Propagandhi. Reconstruction Site is a brilliant makeover of the Weakerthans ‘pop/punk past, with touches of pedal-steel guitar giving a Neil Young twang to the crunchy power chords. Samson is Canada’s best lyricist (a self-evident truth not debatable within these confines), and his ambition shines at every turn: a song whose melody is a musical palindrome, lyrics written from the perspective of a cat, and a triumphant, self-loathing hometown anthem whose resigned chorus wryly proclaims, “I hate Winnipeg.” No band, however, embodied the idea of love during wartime quite like Stars, the Toronto outfit led by singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. 2003′s Heart sounds like ABBA in a snowglobe, its twinkling love songs suspended in syrupy time. Like their French-American counterparts in Ivy, Stars made high-gloss pop seem almost subversive – a lost art of airy vocals and dreamy synths.
Sounds of idyllic romance simply wouldn’t do for a bitch in heat like Peaches. The Toronto-born Merrill Beth Nisker rode a wave of notoriety from 2000 breakthrough The Teaches Of Peaches with 2003′s similarly oversexed Fatherfucker. Love her or hate her, there is more filth and fury in Peaches ‘minimalist electro than in the crustiest of punk-guitar bands. Fatherfucker is highlighted by a duet with Iggy Pop and any number of vaginal references, including “My labia majora, dancin ‘the Hora/Soft as angora, you can’t ignore-ah.” But the year’s most risquÃ© album belonged to a mild-mannered gay art student with an acoustic guitar. “I sit while he stands over me,” sings Joel Gibb tenderly. “I can hardly see that he is peeing on my shoulders and knees.” Gibb is the leader of the Hidden Cameras, a Toronto group whose second album, The Smell Of Our Own, revels in stained sheets and the afterhours activities of homosexual men. That songs such as “Golden Streams” and “Ban Marriage” are wrapped in strummy orchestral pop – several tracks have a distinctively Belle & Sebastian bounce – only add to the Hidden Cameras ‘bawdy charm.
With all the pop music swirling around them, Guelph, Ontario’s Constantines were (to use curling parlance) hurrying hard. The rock ‘n ‘roll heard on Constantines ‘Sub Pop debut, Shine A Light, felt like a revival or a resurrection, with frontman Bry Webb as Jesus or Joe Strummer. Speaking of religious icons, you might be wondering where Sloan has been hiding in this discussion. Truth be told, Sloan – big brothers to nearly all the acts mentioned above and, given its four songwriters, the original indie-rock collective/supergroup – were outliers to the year’s Canadian explosion. But that doesn’t mean anyone should overlook Action Pact, the arena-rock-sized album recorded with L.A.-based producer Tom Rothrock (who’s worked with Foo Fighters and Elliott Smith). Action Pact is a well-polished bookend to 1998′s KISS- and Thin Lizzy-worshipping Navy Blues, written and mixed for the long-gone era of FM rock radio. “Everybody seems content to fade away,” goes a line in the last song on Action Pact. That sentiment seems true of neither Sloan nor the Canadian scene that blossomed in 2003 and beyond: to the success and creativity of Arcade Fire, Black Mountain, Feist, Wolf Parade and many others to come.