Primer: Canadian Indie-Rock

Primer: Canadian Indie-Rock

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: the rich bounty of Canadian indie-rock, as represented by the likes of Stars (new album out Sept. 25), Kevin Drew (new album out this week), The Weakerthans (new album out Sept. 25), and The Sadies (new album out Oct. 2).

Canadian indie-rock 101:

Stylistically, Canadian indie-rock covers a spectrum as broad as the country itself, encompassing everything from rootsy twang to futuristic electronica. But if there's one unifying factor to the Canadian way of making music, it's a tendency toward collectivism. Take Sloan, a Halifax-born power-pop quartet that briefly flirted with being the new Nirvana—even serving a stint on Nirvana's major-label home, DGC—before retrenching as a fist-pumping retro-rock outfit with a rabid local fan base. All four Sloan members write and sing on the band's records and regularly switch instruments during joyously communal concerts; during the height of their popularity in the early '00s, they also lent a hand to friends like Eric's Trip, The Super Friendz, and The Flashing Lights. Fans love Sloan because they feel like they know Sloan.

Sloan's "Money City Maniacs" video:

 

Or consider Vancouver's The New Pornographers, a triumphant cult act whose two primary songwriters—Carl Newman and Dan Bejar—secured their reputation as frontmen for Zumpano and Destroyer, respectively. Bejar is all about the artistry of David Bowie, while Newman is all about the craftsmanship of Burt Bacharach, but both come together every couple of years to fuse two distinct sensibilities into something sublimely raucous.

The New Pornographers' "Sing Me Spanish Techno" video:

 

Canada's indie-rock hub is located in Toronto, and centered on the sprawling co-op Broken Social Scene, whose offshoots and intersections include (but aren't limited to) Apostle Of Hustle, Valley Of The Giants, Jason Collett, and co-founder-turned-solo-artist Kevin Drew. The band broke through with the 2003 album You Forgot It In People, a sprawling collection of hooky pop and experimental drone that still seems like the product of a hive mind, not any one human individual. Drew and his BSS partner Brendan Canning discern what their army of friends can bring to a song, then add it to the mix—never overstuffing, and nearly always enriching.

Broken Social Scene's "Cause = Time" video:

 

And no survey of the fundamentals of the contemporary Canadian-music scene would be complete without a mention of Montreal's The Arcade Fire, who've become so popular internationally that their Canadian history has become a less-essential part of their bio. Still, though husband and wife co-leaders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne pretty much shape the band's sound themselves, The Arcade Fire's elaborate instrumentation and transcendent live shows fully fit the Canadian indie-rock spirit, proving that it takes a province to record a classic album.

The Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" video:

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Intermediate work:

Many acts related to those mentioned above are eminently worthy in and of themselves, like Montreal's Stars and Toronto's Metric, whose members all spent time in New York City—a more natural home for the former's urbane techno-pop and latter's gritty synth-rock—before returning to Canada. Metric's Emily Haines and Stars' Amy Millan have also worked with Broken Social Scene, as has Feist, a worldly chanteuse who splits time between Paris and Toronto, and whose two solo albums have become sizable underground hits thanks to their effortless melodicism and "stung sophisticate" pose.

Feist's "Mushaboom" video:

 

A few years back, Montreal's The Unicorns looked like would-be world-beaters, judging by the buzz that surrounded their lo-fi avant-pop album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? But the band broke up, leaving key members Nicholas Thorburn and Jaime Thompson to soldier on as Islands, performing a tighter version of The Unicorns' sprawl on the jaunty, moody album Return To The Sea. Montreal is also the home to Wolf Parade, a raging rock act populated by ex-members of Frog Eyes and Hot Hot Heat. The band's debut album Apologies To The Queen Mary was one of 2005's most electrifying records: an aggressively poetic collection of songs equally indebted to Pixies, Talking Heads, and Big Country.

Wolf Parade's "I'll Believe In Anything" video:

 

Less-heralded but still outstanding, Winnipeg's The Weakerthans combine witty, moving character sketches with slightly off-kilter pop-rock, hearkening back to the wry roots of Can-indie. The band's upcoming Reunion Tour builds on 2003's excellent Reconstruction Site with a deeper, more carefully crafted sound, but with the same involving stories of sometimes-happy, sometimes-pathetic obsessives.

Advanced studies:

Countless Canadian rockers can trace their inspiration back to The Rheostatics, who began gigging around in 1980, and who for the last 27 years have recorded major-label albums as well as their own releases, never losing their club-friendly rock sound and the puckish sensibility that once led them to write an ode to legendary Maple Leafs' defenceman Wendel Clark.

Though their sound is roughly 180 degrees opposite from The Rheostatics, the ramshackle British Columbia shriek-folk act Frog Eyes shares their DIY spirit, reflected in rambling concept albums that combine the dark storytelling of Nick Cave with a distinctive northern chill. Frog Eyes' Victoria neighbors Shapes And Sizes are a little easier to take, though compared to the all-purpose party/working/background-music quality of Broken Social Scene, Shapes And Sizes are more like a box of poisonous snakes. The band's second album, this year's Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner found them getting more confident with tunes that veer from lovely to fractured, with little care for the difference between the two.

Shapes And Sizes' "Teller, Seller":

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The suburban Toronto kids in Tokyo Police Club also embrace an all-over-the-place aesthetic, but without the abrupt rhythms or maddening aftershocks. Its short A Lesson In Crime EP quickly won the group tour dates with Cold War Kids and a record deal with Conor Oberst's US indie label Saddle Creek. It's a little baffling at first, but the EP's guitar- and synth-pop pleasures prove less fleeting than expected. Also straight out of the Toronto 'burbs: The Most Serene Republic, a Broken Social Scene-like band of expansive alt-rock adventurers, who have progressed from the weirdly hooky 2005 LP Underwater Cinematographer to the more forceful, experimental Population, due out October 15th.

For those who prefer their rock with more backbeat and guitar bite, two veteran Ontario outfits are a must: the frenzied By Divine Right and the frighteningly controlled Constantines. The former has grown beyond its garage-rock origins to embrace R&B and gospel, pulling the most uplifting elements from different genres to create a happily soul-shaking experience. Constantines also want to set their listeners in motion, but their songs have apocalyptic undertones, urging people to dance their way through the end of days.

Constantines' "Working Full Time" video:

 

The essentials:

1. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible

Where The Arcade Fire's first album, Funeral, dealt with loss and renewal on a personal level, Neon Bible goes global, offering songs of comfort in a time of trial. It's a booming, hooky rock record designed to make even the fans in the cheap seats feel welcomed into the circle.

2. Sloan, 4 Nights At The Palais Royale

It's hard to single out any one of Sloan's albums as its best work, but this 1998 double-live CD at least gives a fair representation of what a Sloan show is like, with the audience chanting along and the band trotting out monster hook after monster hook, smiling but not winking.

3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema

Twin Cinema doesn't punch and hook as incessantly as The New Pornographers' first two albums, Mass Romantic and Electric Version, but it's the band's boldest reach yet. Here, The New Pornographers dare to slow down and build epics. "The Bleeding Heart Show" shows off the band's full range of vocal powers, as the album's surge of empathy overcomes A.C. Newman's often-cryptic lyrics.

4. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People

Broken Social Scene began to take shape (or a distinct lack of shape) on its second album, as it blossomed from a modest instrumental project to a wondrous collective mess, crediting about a dozen performers. The great feat here isn't the way the makeshift band incorporates countless glitches, voices, flutes, guitars, and keys into just under an hour; it's that the album feels friendly, and never too pretentious, throughout all its phases.

5. Constantines, Tournament Of Hearts

Combining pounding drums, tightly spiraling guitars, and Bryan Webb's choked vocals, Constantines build an unstoppable machine out of discarded pieces of rock 'n' roll's past. And while Webb rages against the dying of the light, his band brings the ominous rumble, proving once again that doom is a perennial, especially in Canada, where indie-rockers both light a candle and curse the darkness.

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Miscellany:

The following acts have had a significant presence in the scattered Canadian alternative scenes, but have either left "indie" behind or are working in genres slightly outside the norm of the bands above:

Hot Hot Heat jumped with all feet into the angular dance-rock sound that was the rage in the early '00s, but were unable to find much mainstream success, and have responded with a new album, Happiness Ltd., that removes almost all of their former kink in favor of a radio-ready sheen.

"Middle Of Nowhere":

 

The Sadies have been kicking around the alt-country scene for more than a decade, and have gradually been transforming their rootsy influences into a modernist sound that finds echoes of the past in the present.

"Why Be So Curious":

 

Peaches has built a cult following by fusing electro-clash, hip-hop, and explicit sexuality, baffling those who aren't sure whether she's a big joke or a brilliantly transgressive performance artist.

"Downtown":

 

Twin sisters Tegan & Sara first emerged out of Calgary as Indigo Girls-style folk-chicks, but as they've matured, they've showed an increasing interest in disjointed rhythm and long-line melodies, converting catchy guitar-pop into something deeply personal, like the sonic equivalent of the cramped writing in a smart teenagers' diary.

"The Con":