Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rheostatic retirement

Without these eclectic rockers - about to play their final Toronto shows - it's safe to say Canada's indie music boom would never have happened

Mar 29, 2007 04:30 AM
Ben Rayner

If there's a positive spin to put on the Rheostatics' looming retirement, it's that one of Canada's most beloved cult bands will shortly be in a position to be rediscovered.

Not that the Rheos' good name isn't well travelled in Can-rock circles. After more than 20 years on the periphery – and occasionally just inside the periphery – of the nation's cultural consciousness, Etobicoke's favourite sons are a familiar, if somewhat obscure, entity to most folks who have a passing acquaintance with Canadian rock `n' roll.

Even if you can't name a single song in the Rheostatics' catalogue, chances are you've heard the Tragically Hip pumping the band at one time or another over the years. You probably read about them in 1995, too, when the national media were briefly abuzz with news that a little-known art-rock outfit from Toronto had been commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada to compose a transporting soundtrack to its Group of Seven retrospective.

And although you probably won't realize it until someone pulls the tune out of the stacks in the days ahead to honour the Rheostatics' final two Toronto shows – one at the Horseshoe Tavern tonight, another tomorrow at Massey Hall – you've likely tapped a toe to the band's one proper radio hit, 1994's lovely "Claire," maybe while thinking to yourself: "Who does this song again?"

So maybe the Rheostatics aren't exactly undiscovered. Like many defiantly iconoclastic musicians before them, though, they're definitely under-discovered.

This is largely their own doing, of course. What the Rheos' discography lacks in stylistic consistency, it makes up for in its ability to consistently challenge, if not baffle. Short of techno and thrash metal, they've tried pretty much everything over the course of their 10 studio albums, as befits a band that would seem to venerate Rush, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot in equal measure.

The rustic folk-rock yelping of 1987's indie classic Greatest Hits and 1991's Melville would give way to the luminous pop of 1992's Whale Music and the eclectic, prog-influenced expanses of 1995's Introducing Happiness, an underappreciated tumult of big-budget studio weirdness that would end the band's brief relationship with confused American major label Sire Records.

Music Inspired by the Group of Seven was followed by the relatively straightforward, Crazy Horse-ian scrape of 1996's Mike Harris-bashing The Blue Hysteria, but whatever mainstream attention might have been regained with sporadic airplay for "Bad Time to be Poor" was deliciously squandered on a children's album titled The Story of Harmelodia three years later. The last Rheostatics album, 2004's 2067, was a concept record envisioning Canada 200 years after Confederation. A tough sell, even in Canada.

"I think maybe they're a little too good for their own good," the Tragically Hip's Robbie Baker remarked to me in 1997.

He's bang-on, really. I've had some near-religious experiences at Rheostatics live shows, cherish a number of their songs ("Aliens (Christmas 1998)" is a fave) and have always found the lads – Dave Bidini, Martin Tielli, Tim Vesely and Michael Phillip Wojewoda, as well as past drummers Dave Clark and Don Kerr – a tremendous bunch of guys, but I'm by no means an aficionado because, to be honest, sometimes I find their more freewheeling antics quite impenetrable.

This is a compliment. Bands shouldn't make it easy for their fans, and I admire the Rheostatics for parlaying their penchant for Canadiana into not just goofy ditties about Wendel Clark and Saskatchewan, but into rustic/cosmic whale music for Group of Seven paintings and cerebral song cycles mulling the future of Canadian nationhood.

The Rheostatics have been pillars of an independent scene and a model of sustainable, self-sufficient artistry untainted by commercial considerations for more than two decades. If they and their contemporaries had not nurtured our rock `n' roll underground, Canada's recent indie boom would, it's safe to say, never have happened. And if they hadn't encouraged a 13-year-old kid to start mail-ordering indie records and looking beyond Good Rockin' Tonite for cool music, I probably wouldn't be writing this today.

So, thank you, Rheostatics. We couldn't have done it without you.

No comments: