Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Frozen Island Discs: My All Time Top Ten Canadian Tunes

I lived in Canada for a while in the late 80's - in Toronto - and got involved in the music scene through Pepsi and some friends at Much Music. Stuart Payne recently joined Saatchi & Saatchi in Canada from Lexus as President and CEO. He's just sent me his very personal top 10 songs - by Canadians about Canada...Worth a listen.

1) HelplessA great song by Canadian, Neil Young, about growing up in a small town in north Ontario. Its haunting lyrics capture both the memories of youth…"And in my mind I still need a place to go. All my changes were there,” and some great Canadian imagery…“Big birds flying across the sky, throwing shadows on our eyes”. It is sung in a spare, stripped down style and you can hear the loneliness and coldness in the recording. It sounds like a day in a dark, cold, northern town. Neil is an amazing artist whose career has now spanned decades and multiple musical styles but has always stayed true to his Canadian roots.

2) Lovers in a Dangerous Time
Originally written and recorded by Bruce Cockburn and inspired by seeing teenagers expressing romantic love in a schoolyard. The version I prefer is the cover by the Barenaked Ladies from the 1991 Cockburn tribute album Kick at the Darkness. Cockburn can not come close to matching the harmonies on the cover version, and the black and white video of the young Barenaked Ladies (I love writing that…) driving around a frozen Scarborough in the back of a ratty old pick-up truck is perfect. It looks like they spent about $500 on the video. Check it out on YouTube, it’s fantastic.

3) Acadian Driftwood
The Band has to be one of rock and roll’s most important groups. They originally backed Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks, worked with Bob Dylan when he turned electric, and then finally wrote and recorded their own material as The Band. Anyone not familiar with their work should check out the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. Great music and great cinematography.

'Acadian Driftwood' is an epic song written by Robbie Robertson, about the deportation of the French colony of Acadia (now Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) in 1755. The song is told in first person about the despair of being exiled, and eventually settling in Louisiana (Acadians became Cajuns) and yet still yearning for their cold Canadian homeland. The harmonies of Helm, Danko and Manual are remarkable and the song has fiddle, giving it a rootsie, rustic sound and closes with a wave of French Canadian lyrics…very cool.

4) 50 Mission Cap
OK, there has to be a couple of songs about hockey in any list of great Canadian music, eh?

The first song is by The Tragically Hip, a truly great Canadian band that never quite made the big time outside of Canada. This is a guitar driven rock and roll song that tells the story of Bill Barilko, a Toronto Maple Leaf player that disappeared in a bush-plane crash while on a fishing trip in Northern Ontario. The Leafs did not win another Stanley Cup championship until they found his body 11 years later. You just can not make this stuff up. Woven into the song are also lyrics about a “50 mission” cap, which has nothing to do with the hockey story but refers to a cap that WW2 pilots got if they managed to fly 50 missions successfully.

OK then…did I mention the song totally rocks?

5) Four Strong WindsAn amazing song written by Cowboy (not country) singer Ian Tyson in the early 60's. “The song is based on the lives of transient farm workers, forced to work where work can be found, but its theme is the sometimes temporary nature of human relationships.” The song has been covered by everybody and their dog and still manages to sound great no matter who sings it. I sat next to Ian Tyson on a small plane about fifteen years ago. He was heading to a music concert in Halifax and I was on my way to visit a Lexus dealership. I had on a dark blue Armani suit and he wore cowboy boots, wranglers, a big ass belt buckle, cowboy shirt, down vest and huge cowboy hat. He was dressed way cooler.

6) Jolie LouiseDaniel Lanois is not only a superstar producer to the likes of U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson, but he has also written a number of great albums himself. 'Jolie Louise' is off his first album Acadie, and on first listen is a “nice” upbeat song, sung half in English and half in French. It is only when you listen to the lyrics that you understand the “nice happy” song deals with the shame of losing your job, alcoholism, spousal abuse and then finally divorce. Not exactly uplifting, but its use of the two official languages and how the language is used make it a very “Canadian” song.

7) The Collection of Marie Claire
Another Daniel Lanois song. This one does not try to sound happy at all and is a very haunting song off the album The Beauty of Wynona. Again, sung in English and French, Daniel writes the story of someone kidnapping a bride to take with him up to Labrador. All I can say is that it’s a long cold winter up there and a man has to do what he has to do.

8) Hockey Night in Canada theme songTime to lighten things up after the last two Daniel Lanois songs. I have no idea who wrote or performed the theme song but I bet everyone in Canada can hum it.

I have great memories of me as a child lying next to my Dad on a Saturday night in Vancouver watching Dave Keon play for the Toronto Maple Leafs on our black and white TV. The song has been around for a long time and it is still great.

9) Hawaii
I graduated from high school in 1978. The Vancouver punk scene was in full swing at that time and was an influence on me. One of the best bands of that scene was the Young Canadians (formally the K Tels until legal challenges by the cheesy Canadian direct marketers of the same name sued). They recorded a classic song mocking the hordes that would flee the never ending, depressing, overcast, Vancouver drizzle (November to March) and fly in overbooked economy charters to Hawaii to escape. The song is driving, witty and has a great obscene chorus perfect for a drunken sing along. Find it if you can.

10) The Wreck of the Edmund FitzgeraldAnother depressing song about life in Canada, this one about a shipwreck. Sung by iconic Canadian singer songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, the song deals with the sinking of a Great Lakes vessel in a gale on Lake Superior. The song drove me crazy when it was overplayed on Canadian radio as a hit, but hearing it again recently for the first time in a while, I was surprised by how good a story it told and how strong the music actually is.