The vast majority of inhabitants in the United States associate Canada’s contributions to the world of music with Celine Dion. Those who profess to have more extensive knowledge of the subject may cite William Shatner’s unforgettable version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Most people in the States don’t realize that Neil Young, Shania Twain and Joni Mitchell hail from Canada. The truth is that most Americans consider their neighbors to the north as “Americans-lite,” or as nice people suffering under the oppression of socialized medicine.
I am here to wake my fellow countrypersons to one fact: some of the best indie music today is of Canadian origin. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration: the album The Poet’s Dead by a band that goes by the name of Rah Rah, whose origins have been traced to Regina, Saskatchewan.
The Canadian music press has referred to Rah Rah as an “indie darling.” While I love the independence and the artistic license that label provides, it’s a double-edged sword. As Michael Crossley so bluntly observed in French Letters’ “When It Mattered,” the expanded modern definition of independence means “independent of distribution, promotion and attention.” This unfortunate situation is particularly painful when you hear a group of deeply talented musicians like Rah Rah, who combine superb musicianship, palpable energy and extraordinary songwriting abilities to create a fresh and delightfully entertaining listening experience.
A Poet’s Dead kicks off with “Art and a Wife,” Marshall Burns’ ode to the endless conflict between the love and stability found in “normal life” and the pursuit of one’s art. The song begins with pounding drums leading into an extraordinarily catchy and memorable guitar riff. Marshall then sings about the beginnings of his journey as a musician, a launch that was driven more by instinct than intent (“I used to have a guitar/Though I didn’t know what for”). As he continues to improve his guitar skills, eventually the passion for music merges with passion for women:
And then I got a band
We drove around in a van
Played some shows got some fans
We crushed a few cans/drove around in a van
I used have a song
I would sing for every girl
I used to want to make out
Make out with every girl
Now that he’s been there/done that, he wants something more, a life that integrates two traditionally opposite drives: “And now I just want a life/Full of art and a wife.” Such a statement challenges the classic Twain-Hemingway-Henry Miller mythology that women represent civilizing influences that are poison to the artist, but that view is so 20th Century. The last two verses are somewhat ambiguous: one appears to be sung by “the wife” in the tale (played by Kristina Hedlund), who seems ready to check out of the relationship:
I used to have your love
But you tore it from my hands
You tore it from my heart
Like a soiled work of art
It ain’t ever goin’ back to how it was
The second is the narrator’s pleading response, arguing that despite any troubles they’ve had he’s still the guy she fell in love with—the person he revealed only to a very select few:
You still believe in me
In the gospel that I sung
In the poetry I wrote
Like a king behind his moat
The cat I hid away from everyone
Marshall’s vocal is first-rate, and I love the way he changes octaves throughout the song, a simple technique that amps up the excitement level. With strong performances from the entire band, “Art and a Wife” is both an exciting piece of music and a fabulous piece of poetry.
It’s also a hard act to follow, but Erin Passmore more than succeeds with “Prairie Girl,” forming the best one-two opening punch I’ve heard to open an album in a very long time. A uniquely sensitive vocalist with fabulous command of the scale and superb instincts for phrasing, she is absolutely mesmerizing in this character sketch of a woman dealing with life on the cold, lonesome prairie. The lyrics describe a character locked in grim acceptance of the prairie girl stereotype, cursed with a feeling of stuckness—trapped in a social script of behaviors, stereotypes and expectations that inevitably lead to disappointment:
I am a darling, I am a dear
I’ll cut your neck if you get too near
When the chips start falling
I’ll stay here . . .
She was yours as soon as you left me
I doused my life in water and whiskey
No place I’d rather be
than this lonesome prairie
Rah Rah makes superb use of dynamics in this song, with sudden shifts from loud to quiet and back that add to the song’s drama.
“First Kiss” is about the collision of self-doubt and “the yearn to touch,” featuring a poignant set of lyrics and an attention-grabbing bass part. “20’s” is a rather wistful driver with the chorus, “I’ll spend my twenties on rock and roll/I’ll spend my thirties feeling old.” This is where I really missed the presence of the digital booklet, as the lyrics for the song were a bit too hard to grasp; still, the track moves along nicely with some excellent guitar and vocal contributions.
“Dead Men” begins with a captivating theme featuring violin and guitar that reemerges throughout the song. As the tune progresses, we hear clever rhymes (“finish” and “British”), interesting interplay between choral voices and guitar, and a thrilling drum punctuation. This song also deals with life in Regina, and the curious human attachment to one’s place of origin, even if the place is a dump:
What does it mean to come from this city?
I love this place
It’s in my veins
But it ain’t poetry.
The title track is a bouncy number with some unexpected chord changes that make it a compelling listening experience. The band performs with energy, really letting it out on the lines “Like all of us SOCIALISTS/Born to hope, raised to fail.” The last verse is performed over a background of steady hand-clapping, a simple human technique that emphasizes the collaborative nature of the band and encourages the listener to get off his or her ass and join in. “The Poet’s Dead” is an absolute gas, and a solid demonstration of Rah Rah’s power and talent.
One reviewer commented that the album falls flat towards the end. Since she took about 11 seconds to write her four-and-a-half paragraph review, methinks the lady doth protest too much. She even comments that, “The intro to ‘I’m A Killer’ takes on an odd electronic sound to the keys that feel out of place within the rest of the album.” I think that “odd electronic sound” is an organ, an instrument that I believe has been around for a few centuries. Before I get off on a rant on lazy music reviewers and the appalling disrespect they show to artists in general, I will defend the song “I’m a Killer” as a unique and mysterious piece with a fascinating arrangement backing Erin Passmore’s ironically angelic vocals (ironic because, well, her character is a killer). I could listen to this woman sing all day, and I loved her EP, Downtown.
“Run” starts with a hot scratchy guitar chords before Kristina Hedlund enters with her more ethereal vocal style. Her voice works well with the solid drumming and rhythmic support from the band and is an excellent example of good indie rock. Next comes another killer song, “Fake Our Love,” a solid ass-kicker aided by some great syncopation, superbly sweet background vocals and more best-of-class lyrics dealing with the guilty satisfaction and lingering discomfort associated with temporary liaisons:
If you can wait for me by the side of the stage
I promise that for you I will act half of my age
Like we’re young, still in love, full of rage.
You look so beautiful with your eyes down low
I’m just in town for the night but I’ll put you on the guest list for the show,
We’ll get drunk, fake our love, then I’ll go.
The album closes very strongly (ahem) with Erin Passmore’s luscious vocal on “Saint.” The opening passage balances quick but subtle drums and quiet guitar to provide a background that Erin’s voice glides over like she’s floating on air. Her song is supported throughout by the best vocal harmonies on the album and instrumental interludes that vary between keyboard and soaring violin. I just love the way this band refuses to do what you expect them to do, varying the arrangement in the last verse with punctuated power chords instead of continuing in full band mode.
Rah Rah is simply one of the most exciting bands I’ve heard in years, and A Poet’s Dead is their strongest work to date. With all the talent in this group, I will be amazed if they don’t generate some interest on this side of the border, but such wishes are tempered by something I heard a friend of mine say years ago: “Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people.” While perhaps I’m “born to hope, raised to fail,” I simply refuse to believe that Rah Rah will not receive the attention they so obviously deserve.
Wake up, America!