'Saskadelphia' Is a Snapshot of the Tragically Hip Becoming Themselves

'Saskadelphia' Is a Snapshot of the Tragically Hip Becoming Themselves
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With their 1991 sophomore album Road Apples, the Tragically Hip sought to capture the sound and energy of their live performances in a studio recording. The touring before and after the success of 1989 debut Up to Here primed them to do so; an itinerary so packed that drummer Johnny Fay now recalls, "It seemed like the clubs were the same size, and you could be anywhere."

Before Road Apples, Saskadelphia was the name chosen from the list of the band's road-worn working titles for the LP, but was rejected by the band's American record label for being "too Canadian." It's the Hip and their new-old management who get the last laugh now, giving that name to a six-song collection that arrived in time to soundtrack both Victoria Day celebrations and the national playoff hockey broadcast.

Saskadelphia's six tracks, all of which were written with Road Apples in mind, were previously known amongst the hippest of Hip fans that had long traded bootleg recordings, lyrics and live performance stories online. Five studio versions and a live inclusion now surface from the vault, giving a further look at an energetic young outfit beginning to push at the possibilities of what they could be.

True to the gritty aims of Road Apples, Saskadelphia's foundation is built upon the driving rock that defines the Hip's second LP. "Ouch" finds frontman Gord Downie "drunk on naiveté," grinding his vocal cords with each pass of the wind-up guitar riff. On "Not Necessary," voice and instruments dovetail for a chorus that commands listeners to shake off what weighs them down, while "Crack My Spine Like a Whip" employs a directness and delivery akin to a deep catalogue burner like "Lionized."

The Hip's bar-band roots are further exposed with two closing tracks built to bring down the house. "Just as Well" finds Downie traveling "the road to hell," more than content to playfully drag a passenger along with him: "I'll know right away when we're in the right place / 'Cause I'll see it tense up the muscles of your face." Meanwhile, the snare-smacking stomp of "Reformed Baptist Blues" brings Downie to preach, "God's salvation doesn't interest me at all / Found the answer at the bottom of a bottle," letting out a few yelps before a solo section and busy bass line kick into gear.

While its studio version could not be dug up for inclusion, "Montreal" is the lone track to demonstrate Downie's writing of places and events that would endear the Tragically Hip to listeners from coast to coast. Written about the misogynist École Polytechnique massacre, the frontman introduced it as "a song about the identification process" in performing the song in its titular city on the anniversary of the event. Fay believes that Downie's introduction refers to the work of a coroner, and its chorus could be interpreted as such: "Don't you worry / Her mother's going to make her look good."

While it's hard to imagine these songs supplanting the material picked for Road Apples, Saskadelphia is a rocking addendum to this chapter of Tragically Hip history that captures a band increasingly confident and loose — characteristics those early years of music making surely demanded. (Universal)