Published Jan 01, 2006Isolating artists by homeland is a sucker's gambit. If we learned anything from the great grunge wars of the 90s, it's that the surest way to kill a rock scene dead is to paint all of its players with the same stiff brush. Right now, in every American bookstore there are about a dozen magazines with big, hyperbole-laden articles dying to hawk the "Canadian Explosion" to naive goggle-eyed consumers. Most of these articles have as their unspoken underlying principle the idea that the Canadian rock scene can be freeze-dried and packaged the same way that Britpop and reggae and Dirty South hip-hop have been. This, of course, is lunacy.
Because the one tenet asserted by this year's incredible influx of Canadian bands is pop music's enduring universality. If there was any commonality amongst this crop of Canadian artists, it was the wild-eyed glee with which they plucked and assimilated influences from around the big blue sphere.
Take, for starters, this year's most commercially successful Canucks, Hot Hot Heat. Their radio-ready Make Up the Breakdown nicked all its best cues from early 80s British new wave, Cliff-noting XTC and Ian Dury like seniors at the school of rock cramming for the final. Radio fell hard for the wormy, wiry "Bandages," but its wheezing Farfisa recalls Essex more than Vancouver.
Contrast this with the jaw-dropping Cole Porter redux that was Rufus Wainwright's Want One. You can dispute the exact nature of the influence is that piano part more Bowie or Berlin? but one thing is certain: Wainright's heart belongs to Broadway, and every song on Want One played out like a miraculous tribute to the 42nd Street of the 1950s.
And these are only the Canadian acts who scored radio play in the U.S. in 2003. The folly becomes more apparent when the spry power pop of the New Pornographers and the garrulous DC-baiting post-punk of the Constantines are factored in. Both bands generated more ink than a team of angry octopi, with American critics keen on the ability of both bands to appropriate "American" music with more vigour and conviction than anyone Stateside could muster.
But perhaps no band embodies this astonishing diversity better than the pop collective Broken Social Scene. Their debut You Forgot It In People layered grizzled rock guitars over hiccupping drum tracks and dense, foggy synths, creating a sprawling Technicolor collage that managed to recall everyone and no one all at once.
And this is why attempts to cobble together some sort of Zagat's Canadian Rock fall flat. Because when American listeners see "Bandages" on MTV2, they don't say "Hey, look, it's that Canadian band Hot Hot Heat" any more than they buy records by "Canadian country artist" Neko Case (although she's actually American). All that's apparent is the raw skill, the undeniable ability to create songs with nerve, with character and with a bona fide heart. And that's something that transcends all borders.
J. Edward Keyes is a freelance music writer based in Philadelphia; he's a regular contributor to magazines such as Magnet and The Philadelphia Weekly.