When Bryan Adams charged earlier this year that Canadian-content regulations breed “mediocrity,” his criticism drew a chorus of disapproval from the music community. Many claimed that, on the contrary, so-called CanCon quotas for radio have helped to build the domestic recording industry, fostering the careers of international superstars—including Adams—and new talent, as well as a number of domestic stars in between. Indeed, there are now twice as many Canadian recordings released every month as there were a decade ago. And although every batch includes some mediocre albums, the number of first-rate releases by Canadian performers seems to be growing steadily—as illustrated by four new collections. One is dismal, another shows promise and two actually reach new levels of excellence.
The latest by 54-40, a band from Adams’s home town of Vancouver, goes furthest in disproving CanCon criticism. The quartet has clearly benefited from past airplay, which kept up its profile when the group was receiving little support from its record company. Now, with a strong commitment from a new label, Sony Music, 54-40 has released Dear Dear, its finest album to date.
Led by singer Neil Osborne, one of Adams’s most vociferous opponents on the CanCon issue, 54-40 has evolved steadily over the course of three earlier albums, developing a rich, moody sound that compares favorably to past and current American superstars The Doors and R.E.M. But with Dear Dear, the group has hit its stride. There is a new confidence in Osborne’s singing, and the band has rarely sounded so spontaneous, particularly on the tough-rocking Nice to Luv You and the sexually ambiguous She La, with its edgy guitar and driving rhythm. At least some of the credit belongs to producer Don Smith, best known for his work with the enduring U.S. band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But after all these years, 54-40’s perseverance is finally paying off.
Blue Rodeo is another group with staying power. Bolstered by such radio-friendly songs as the irresistible 1987 ballad Try, the quintet has developed into one of the country’s finest bands. Guitarists Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor,
who together share songwriting and harmony duties like a latter-day John Lennon and Paul McCartney, have led the group through three albums and to three consecutive Juno Awards for best group. And with its hybrid countryrock sound, Blue Rodeo has similarly swept awards in the country-music field.
But with their latest album, Cuddy and Keelor have steered the group in a decidedly more urban direction: although Lost Together (Warner) still features some of their old familiar twang, the most exciting tracks are those with a grittier, downtown feel. The angstridden Restless finds Keelor spitting out his lines about Laundromat junkies and street Jesuses with a brash, punk-like ferocity. And the full-throttle Where Are You Now, which equates a romantic interest variously with a “two-lane highway heading west,” a “dare at midnight” and a “desert motel,” harks back to the band’s new-wave days on Queen Street in
downtown Toronto during the early 1980s.
Still, the collection does include some country-flavored numbers. And Western Skies seems destined to become a country classic. Featuring Cuddy’s aching tenor and the plaintive pedal steel guitar of former Cowboy Junkie sideman Kim Deschamps, it conjures up the quiet beauty of Lake Louise and Bow River, contrasting them with the constant pressures of city life.
Coincidentally, on her second album, Inside Out (PolyGram), Sue Medley sings a strikingly similar song. Titled Under a Southern Sky, it features crisp acoustic guitars and yearns for an escape from the city to a place “wide open, bountiful and blue.” Like Blue Rodeo, Medley launched her career with a country-rock style and is now leaning more heavily towards mainstream rock. But unlike the Toronto band, the Vancouver Island native has not yet shown a gift for writing memorable tunes or fresh, original lyrics.
Instead, Medley’s strength lies in her voice, a husky contralto well-suited to belting out rock numbers. Working with members of John Mellencamp’s band, Medley does manage to create some sparks on a twitching piece of rock ’n’ roll called The Sound and the Fury and on Jane’s House, about a troubled woman whose world comes crashing down. But as an allround artist, one who can both craft songs and deliver them, Medley still has some way to go.
Corey Hart, on the other hand, has already been a long way down pop’s road to stardom. The Montreal singer had his first hit, Sunglasses at Night, in 1983, when he was 21. Then, after another No. 1 single, Never Surrender, Hart began drawing comparisons to Bryan Adams as Canada’s leading pop star. But when his album sales declined in the late 1980s, the singer withdrew and quietly began trying to rebuild his career.
Now, Hart is back with a new album, attitude & virtue, and a major Q deal with the Warner-distributed New I York City label Sire Records, which ^ has been home to such stylish artists as Madonna, David Byrne and k. d. lang. But it is baffling to find Hart in such esteemed company. He has always been a better poser than a performer and, vocally, he does not so much sing as pout. His new album has the benefit of such high-priced help as drummer Kenny Aronoff and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, both veteran session musicians, but it suffers from banal lyrics and Hart’s inflated sense of his own worth.
While Blue Rodeo and 54-40 make a mockery of Adams’s CanCon criticisms, Hart seems stuck in his own mediocrity. Still, his record is the exception in a summer where Canadian pop is proving itself to be vibrant, adventurous— and anything but mediocre.
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