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Arts and Culture

The Great Canadian Song Debate, Part Three

Tragically Hip, McLachlan, Fresh Wes, Metric, Buffy Saint-Marie -- let battle commence.

By Thom Wong 21 Mar 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Thom Wong writes regularly about music for The Tyee. He can also be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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...and also this quintessentially Canadian guy.

[Editor's note: If you missed the first two parts, which include the songs in contention, check here and here.]

"I just got here--what's going on?"

So far we've laid out the bracket of 64 contenders, divided into four regions. We've also had our first matchup, where "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire in the Sean Minogue region handily beat Kathleen Edwards' "A Soft Place to Land".

"Why was Teddy Thompson on the last list?"

Look, I'm not going to lie. When I made the last list I thought Thompson was Canadian. He seemed Canadian. I discovered he wasn't but forgot to take him out before I submitted the article, partly because I couldn't make up my mind as to with whom I'd replace him. So I've decided to give his slot to whoever gets the most mentions between now and the next round. Call it a mea culpa to all those people who asked that I replace a Neil Young song with Joni Mitchell (and clearly didn't read the first part.)

"Is Arcade Fire even a Canadian band?"

Presuming you actually know who Arcade Fire is, this is probably not a question you've asked yourself. The easy answer is that if Steppenwolf is a Canadian band, Arcade Fire is a Canadian band. Nevertheless, two of its key members, including the lead lyricist and singer, are American. So how to decide? My simple answer: they record in a church in Montreal. They're Canadian.

Round of 64!

The Sean Minogue Region vs. The Anne Murray Celebrity All-stars

1. "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire vs. 16. "A Soft Place to Land by Kathleen Edwards

Winner: "No Cars Go"

2. "Home for a Rest" by Spirit of the West vs. "Cry (If You Want To)" by Holly Cole

As with March Madness, there's bound to be a big upset in the early rounds, but it's not happening here with Canada's greatest pub sing-a-long. That's actually a slight disservice to the tune, but if there's a better song to belt out with a roomful of slightly toasted Canadians, I don't know it. As for Cole -- if there was any justice in this world at least half the acclaim that's been bestowed upon Diana Krall would have been given to Cole, a jazz crooner in the classical sense who introduced a generation of Canadians to Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'" long before Gwyneth Paltrow destroyed it. 

Winner: "Home for a Rest"

3. "A Speculative Fiction" by Propagandhi vs. 14. "As Long as You Love Me" by Celine Dion

Nothing would make me happier than picking Dion's ultimate schlock-fest over Propagandhi's heavy metal meets punk volcano, but again that's just not happening. Dion gets a rough ride by Canadians -- her voice is absolutely incredible, even if it serves evil -- but Propagandhi's crazed anti-American fanfic has this line: "Your stupid fucking laser-pucks were just the start". 

Winner: "A Speculative Fiction"

4. "Nautical Disaster" by The Tragically Hip vs. 13. "Gold Guns Girls" by Metric 

Rolling Stone once called The Tragically Hip the best band you've never heard of. Why the Hip never achieved more widespread success might have something to do with their insistence on working Canadian themes into all of their best music, or it might be Gord Downie's inscrutable, novel-length lyrics. Either way, the Hip have been rolled out so often as Canada's best band that they've become undervalued in their overvaluation. In "Nautical Disaster" they've crafted a haunting tale that washed away the cloying lilt of Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". (Say what you want -- that song is tedious.) 

With Metric you have a very good rock band at the peak of their powers. Unfortunately, if the Hip's ceiling was, even unfulfilled, in the direction of The Kinks or The Who, Metric's ceiling is closer to Blur. They write really good songs and, in Emily Haines, have one of the most talented women in rock, but you never get the impression greatness is in their makeup.

Sean Minogue adds: "It's very rare that I would pick a Tragically Hip song over a band adored by the indie community, but "Nautical Disaster" is one of those rare mainstream Canadian tunes that has it all." 

Winner: "Nautical Disaster"

5. "Let Your Backbone Slide" by Maestro Fresh Wes vs. 12. "Good Mother" by Jann Arden

This is why you do this. This is why you find 64 songs and rank them into groups of 16 and then put those groups against each other, so that at some point you'll be arguing the merits of a Jann Arden weepy against possibly the best hip-hop this country has ever produced. Who knew it would happen this early?

When Choclair signed with Priority records the Canadian music community responded like we'd discovered the next Grandmaster Flash, as opposed to an artist who seemed three years behind the genre (and gave the world the ridiculous Karl Wolf). Whereas Choclair and the entire late '90s hip-hop scene in Canada came across as weird younger siblings to their Southern older brothers, Maestro Fresh Wes sounded exactly of the times... and good. The crazy climbing bassline, iconic horn sample, and, surprisingly, Wes' oddly undated vocals create a hip-hop anthem we can actually be proud of. Let's put it this way -- if Kanye West ever decided to cover 'Slide", it wouldn't be that unusual. 

"Good Mother" is a bonafide earworm. I challenge you to listen to it once and not have it creep up on you three or four times that day. It's greatest strength may be escaping the sentimentality of its subject matter through genuinely disruptive turns of phrase. "I've got a good father, and his strength is what makes me cry," Arden sings, and there isn't a dry eye in the house. It's not quite enough to overcome the hip-shaking funk of the Maestro, but it's pretty damn close.

Winner: "Let Your Backbone Slide"

6. "Hasn't Hit Me Yet" by Blue Rodeo vs. 11. "Until it's Time for You to Go" by Buffy Sainte-Marie

In a list of "Most Underrated Canadian Bands Outside of Canada", Blue Rodeo might place a hard second to the Hip, if only in the mind of ardent Blue Rodeo fans. With all due respect to Mr. Minogue, they're not a band I've ever gotten into. "Hasn't Hit Me Yet" is a properly Canadian song, in that it sounds like you might be walking along a long flat road during a light snow, but it's also about as tedious as that road might be.

On the other hand, you have the undeniably awesome Buffy Sainte Marie with a song that Wes Anderson is probably about to make famous. Sainte Marie has stronger material and more important material, but "...for You to Go" is the kind of torch song we're unlikely to ever hear again, and one that, had Elvis sung it, would be played every hour, on the hour, on AM gold. Her voice takes a sad song and makes it into a broken song, with emotions that are too earnest not to be true. 

Winner: "Until It's Time for You to Go"

7. "Cause = Time" by Broken Social Scene vs. 10. "Constant Craving" by k.d. lang

It's weirdly fitting that an artist such as k.d. lang would receive the most attention of her distinguished career for covering the most over-covered Canadian song of all time, when she sang "Hallelujah" during the Olympic opening ceremony, otherwise known as "not written by Jeff Buckley". She's definitely close to the top of Canadian artists the rest of the world admires, but at whom Canada collectively shrugs its shoulders. Does a vocal talent like lang need Cohen's words to stand out? 

Broken Social Scene made it okay to like Canadian bands again, especially after carnage wrought by the three-named killers of alt rock that preceded them. Along with The New Pornographers, they demonstrated that Canadian bands could be indie AND songsmiths by chiming out complexly arranged power pop tunes that sounded both entirely of their time, the early millennium, and also timeless. 

"Cause = Time" is fairly representative of this then new sound; softly spoken vocals that tell a story about... something, driving guitar line, metronome-like drumming. Add in a vaguely '80s sounding organ blip and you have an anthem for an unnamed generation, complete with (quietly) exploding guitars. In 2002 its sound, especially from a Canadian band, was basically unparalleled. 

But that's also part of its problem -- it sounds a LOT like 2002, more so than the rest of the album, whereas "Constant Craving" doesn't sound like it's from any time at all. If a song is to be considered the best of Canada from any time period, can it really sound so rooted in a specific era?

Sean adds: "It's hard to narrow down a single BSS song that sums up what they're all about, but this is my personal favourite from one of the best albums to ever be released in Canada, You Forgot it in People."

Sorry, Sean.

Winner: "Constant Craving"

8. "Bass Song" by Hayden vs. 9. "Ice Cream" by Sarah McLachlan

What the hell happened to Sarah McLachlan? At one point the darling of the indie scene, you can chart a pretty clear course between her rising success and declining artistic output. I'm not saying McLachlan was on her way to becoming Joni Mitchell 2.0, but I don't think anyone foresaw her becoming Celine Dion 0.5. "Ice Cream" is one of those songs that sound better the drunker you are, which seems obvious but hinges, as many good songs do, on other people singing along. 

Hayden is a quintessential Canadian artist. He puts moose on the covers of his albums. His lyrics are riddled with references to Canada and canadiana. He was a hero of the college circuit when I was in college, and hearing him play live felt like an event that properly defined what it meant to be a Canadian student. 

How you determine this head-to-head battle will depend largely on your feelings about what McLachlan has become (you might not like her at all, but then you're just hating), and whether you've ever even heard of Hayden. Lyrically "Ice Cream" makes about as much sense as a Hallmark card read backwards, but somehow the brushed drum beat, open chords, and mouth pops coalesce into pure pop goodness. "Bass Song" is what you'd call difficult; off-time piano, mumbled vocals, and a general sense of doom. It's also, oddly, quite beautiful.

Sean Minogue adds: "I've never felt more of a connection to a Canadian artist than with Hayden. He's mumbly and covered in plaid, and he tells these melancholic tales over simple folky hooks. He's one of my all-time favourites."

This was a close one, but given that Hayden continues to make records that sounds like you’re staring from a cabin across a lake, and McLachlan basically sings the music equivalent of a Lifetime movie, this one goes to the mumbler.

Winner: "Bass Song"  [Tyee]

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