Mike’s Musical Memoirs, Springtime Edition : My Favourite Canadian Records of 1994

April 6, 2017 in features

I’ve had a typically uncreative winter. No gigs, nor even a rehearsal to speak of since early December. No solid ideas or themes popping up to write about. Just lots of grey. This past January was record breaking in its greyness, officially. But now, the sun is starting to fight its way back into the everyday and the summer festival lineups are starting to roll out. Which can mean only one thing…

grandharvasThe Gandharvas – A Soap Bubble and Inertia

FINALLY…Spring has arrived. It is – literally – the first day of spring as I type this. Being a Canadian music lover and/or a lover of Canadian music has certain traditions. On this day, it is to share, crank and enjoy the huge hit, ‘The First Day of Spring’, by one of Canada’s best kept secrets, The Gandharvas.

Spring, 1994: I was determining what my post-secondary education would entail. It was either going to be Sheridan’s prestigious Media Arts program or Mohawk’s prestigious Music program. For my three-part Mohawk performance audition, executed with my trusty Washburn bass guitar, I played Bach’s ‘Prelude in C’ in a two-hand tapping style lifted directly from Stu Hamm’s second album, Tim Vesely’s bass lick from the intro of the Rheostatics’ hit ‘Soul Glue’ and the first half of Cliff Burton’s 1983 solo masterpiece ‘Anesthesia – Pulling Teeth’.

I charmed the instructor during the interview and he was mildly impressed with my performance. However, I shit the bed on the written theory test, completely. The instructor gave me the chance to rewrite the test at a later date to ensure my admission. I thanked him and promised to think about it. As I mauled this over in my parents’ mini-van on the way back to Dunnville from Hamilton, the sun shone all over the fields of Lincoln County on what was indeed a gorgeous spring afternoon. Just as I was internally resolving to focus all of my future efforts on the audition video required for my Sheridan application (Do I really need ‘bass guitar college’? meh), 102.1 The Edge played the spring seasons’ new Canadian anthem and it made a huge first impression. ‘The First Day of Spring’s ethereal vibe, whispery verses and spooky chord progressions stood out beautifully from the mostly mosh-pit friendly alt-bangers that were dominating the Canadian ‘New Rock’ airwaves at the time. I could also sense just a touch of Perry Farrell’s influence in the lead vocal and I really, really liked that.

The song’s triumphant crescendo felt great as I celebrated my own resolve and fresh sense of focus.

I only remember that first listen due to the occasion of the drive. There’s no telling how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times that I’ve navigated the country roads between Dunnville and Hamilton in my lifetime. The atmosphere and circumstance just came together perfectly and now I think of that very personally significant drive home, every time I hear that song. Less than a year later, I’d be enjoying my own copy of A Soap Bubble and Inertia in the novel comfort of my first apartment as I happily worked and partied my way through Sheridan’s Media Arts Fundamentals program. Good times. “There’s no way of knowing how long it will last.”


rehosintroccuRheostatics – Introducing Happiness

I’d already been a devoted Green Sprout (an official Rheos fan) for a couple years by the time Etobicoke’s finest foursome made their major label debut, Introducing Happiness. I’d seen them work out a lot of the material onstage as they were riding the wave of Whale Music’s success through some unforgettable shows at the Ontario Place Forum, the Bathurst Street Theatre, and Hamilton’s legendary Tivoli Theatre. Good times. I was still too young to catch them at the Horeseshoe or Ultrasound just yet, so my first handful of Rheos shows were mostly in more idyllic, theatrical concert settings which kept a ‘larger than life’ aura glowing brightly around them and I really, really liked that.

My anticipation for a follow-up record in general had never been so passionate as it was for Introducing Happiness, not since I’d spent most of the summer of 1988 just sitting and staring at full page ads for Metallica’s …And Justice For All, set for release at the end of August. The Rheostatics’ triumphant follow-up to Whale Music came out in the summer of 1994 as I was preparing for that first year of college. For the move, I’d just bought myself a nice new futon after selling my bulky waterbed off to a friend’s younger sibling. That futon was the first major ‘furniture’ purchase that I’d ever made for myself. Kind of a big deal. I spent most of August sleeping on it as I worked the final weeks of the holiday away in the local pickle plant that had employed me every summer since 1991. I’d retire to the futon on those late summer nights, viciously dreading the painfully early morning that lead into a full day of walking around in a humid potpourri of ‘pickle brine and cardboard’, and I’d put on Introducing Happiness. It took me away as I excitedly dreamt about the upcoming college year and the totally new life setting that was just a few weeks out of reach. As I laid there listening closely, the fresh and potent aroma rising from the processed wooden frame of my mint new futon filled me with a sensory memory that I can still easily muster today and Introducing Happiness is its trigger. I can still smell that fresh new futon frame every time I put that record on. I could still muster the smell of that pickle plant, but I’ve trained myself to will it out almost completely.

Martin Tielli’s sweet little love song, ‘Take Me In Your Hand’ should have been as big as ‘More Than Words’. Put it this way, that song is my ‘More Than Words’. It’s the Canadian slow dance mega-hit that never was. ‘Earth’ showed the world what Dave Bidini could really do. An epic piece, musically and lyrically, that rocks even harder than ‘Horses’ did, but at a much slower tempo and with anthemic heft. Tim Vesely remains calm with the peaceful, easy feeling of ‘Claire’ and the slow country strumming of ‘Row’. Dave Clark’s shining moment is, reflectively, another jazzy beat-poetry freakout of sorts called ‘Full Moon Over Russia’ (see also: ‘Guns’ from Whale Music). These are only five of the 18 gorgeous and eclectic tracks to be explored on this sprawling work of Alternative Canadiana…or perhaps Post-Torontonia…but really just pure, uncut Etobicoke. My brother and I enjoyed our first ever ‘big time’ opening gig when our baby band, Imp, was graciously invited by Dave Bidini to play with the Rheos at Hamilton’s long gone indie mecca, X-Club on their ‘Introducing Happiness’ tour. As far as I was concerned, we had pretty much ‘made it’ that night.


shallowShallow North Dakota – Auto Body Crusher

When I first joined the Label Obscura team, my editor requested that I do a full-length feature piece on this record alone…I guess this is my shortcut, or maybe a sneak preview, to fulfilling said request.

New Year’s Eve, December 31st, 1993: Sonic Unyon Records was having a party in a large basement somewhere just north of Hamilton’s downtown core. My squad and I had heard about it from our more scene-savvy buddies in Gorp who were then just starting to work themselves into the Unyon’s good graces and onto their roster, at the time consisting only of founders Tristan Psionic, Sponge (later renamed Smoother), Gleet (This would be the first and last time I ever saw them, as their vocalist Scott Kish died tragically in a car accident the very next morning, spawning Sianspheric months later) and Shallow. All of the above were slated to perform that night. Shallow, I was told, were the heavy guys on the bill so my curiosity was peaked. Once they took to the stage, they brought it pretty hard and I really, really liked it. Their set ended with an impromptu jam of Jailbreak by AC/DC with Tristan’s infamous bassist ‘Wool’ doing his best Bon Scott, oddly sporting only a towel as if he’d just gotten out of the shower. Our intense Shallow fandom was secured that night. While most kids in the scene were making sure to fly their alt/indie flags with their Dinosaur Jr, Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth tees, these dudes clearly didn’t give a single F about any of that. As a slightly frustrated headbanger, I really, really liked that. I was sold.

From there, we attended every Shallow (later re-renamed Shallow, North Dakota) show possible. One of my life’s greatest pleasures throughout the mid to late 90s was to simply take in a Shallow ND set, which were frequent and plentiful at the time. In my little world, if you never got to see Shallow North Dakota open a set with the album’s fifth track, ‘Open Minded’, as they so often did back then, then you simply have not lived. The power was overwhelming, every single time.

The arrival of their debut full length cd, Auto Body Crusher, in 1994 was a pretty big deal. We’d been waiting rabidly for months on end, while subsisting on their 6 track ‘Pop the Hood’ cassette, containing songs mostly long deleted from their set list by the time we’d started seeing them. With Auto Body Crusher, Shallow had truly arrived and could not be matched…nor even touched. Over the next few years, we became friends and Shallow eventually did Chore an enormous favour by inviting us onto a Western Canadian tour, our first tour of any kind. Good times.

Most folks today might like early Shallow ND because it reminds them a bit of classic Melvins, but it was the other way around for me. Shallow ND prepared me for Melvins, Clutch, Neurosis, Isis… Shallow ND are dearly missed but today, you need to look up Crux Of Aux and Backbiters, ASAP. All three members of SND can be found in these two killer bands. KILLER bands.


Honorable Mentions

Change of Heart – Tummysuckle.

Ian Blurton and co. made this hard-hitting record with the money they’d won from CFNY as New Music Search winners. Videos for ‘Trigger’ and ‘Herstory’ got some good lovin’ from MuchMusic. The latter portrayed a semi-repressed love story between two male prison inmates. A brave, proto-cool move but sadly, still a commercially detrimental one back in 1994. Most Tragically Hip fans of the time weren’t quite ready for this sort of thing, but The Hip took them out on tour anyway. Because the Hip. A briefly reunited Chore had the privilege of playing ‘Herstory’ with Ian at a ‘90s Can-Rock’ retrospective show, during the Juno Week celebrations of 2011 at the Horseshoe in Toronto. It was a lifetime musical highlight for all four of us, and it felt like a pretty damn good fit. One night only: Chore of Heart. Today: Check out Public Animal, ASAP.

 Treble Charger – NC-17

When these guys (then known as NC-17) first appeared on the Toronto scene after making the big move from Sault Ste. Marie, they seemed to take off right away and the Sonic Unyon crowd seemed to cheer them on just a little bit louder than everybody else. They became one of the Unyon’s first bands to cause a real ‘buzz’ on a wider national scale just after SU signed them and eventually re-released their debut from 1994. Seeing the very pro looking video for ‘10th Grade Love’ on the Wedge almost every day for a while was kind of exciting, and a little bit encouraging. Roughly 10 years later, in an odd turn of events, ex-members of Chore and one ex-member of Treble Charger would join forces as Don Vail and on other days, as the Priddle Concern. These days, a revamped Treble Charger tends to pop up occasionally at Canadian summer music festivals. Good times, but I would recommend seeking out the music of the Priddle Concern and Don Vail sooner than later. Maybe it’s me.


hHead – Jerk

Already covered here. I flashed hHead’s own Noah Mintz with my vintage XL purple hHead tee at the aforementioned 90s Night/Juno Week party at the Shoe. He was chuffed. Later on, we got to watch him play ‘Happy’ from Jerk. We were chuffed.

Wooden Stars – The Very Same

Already covered here also. Almost unexplainably amazing. No video, too much mystique.

Sloan – Twice Removed

Already covered all over the internet. An undisputed Canadian classic that out-Pinkerton’d Pinkerton two years before Pinkerton was even a thing: The abrupt maturity of their sophomore effort threw many for a loop, and the band fell apart for a while right after the tour, but now it’s almost everybody’s favourite. I always really, really liked it and ‘Before I Do’ is my favourite Sloan song, hands down. Huge.

Interview: The Long Dark Road
Diggers Delight: The Sound Garden, Syracuse, NY
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By Mike Bell

Mike is a musician, a bassist by trade. He used to have a band called Chore. He's currently in a band called Customaries. He got his official start in music writing at Hamilton's View Magazine, way back when he worked at Sonic Unyon Distribution as an indie retail sales rep. He now resides in Toronto and very intermittently posts essays at mikesmusicalmemoirs.wordpress.com, a music blog of his own making, and is the host of the southernsouls.ca/podcast

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