by Tom Johnson
The Tragically Hip, a staple in the band’s homeland of Canada, was still largely unknown in the U.S., two decades in their career. In Between Evolution seemed to be a concerted effort to break through in the states. Unfortunately, as with most such efforts, it suffers from a few flaws.
Minor as they may be, it was unfortunate to see a band struggling to get attention. Explaining that the Hip deserve the attention should be unnecessary, but as with all things truly good, it generally misses the attention of the public at large who seem to need things more watered down and generalized.
The problem with In Between Evolution is that it sounds, in a way, like two separate pieces — a short section of “different” material (for the Tragically Hip, at least) followed up by a too-short album of traditional Hip material. The album kicks off in high gear with the raw, almost-punk energy of “Heaven Is A Better Place Today,” singer Gord Downie straining to reach the upper echelons of his vocal range. In some respects, it’s as if the Hip made a conscious effort to resurrect a bit of the “hard rock” sound they shed after their first couple of albums Up To Here and Road Apples — with mixed results. It’s not as if these first three songs are bad songs; they just seem to lack some of the heart this band pours into their music.
There’s an odd transition between “Gus The Polar Bear From Central Park” and “Vaccination Scar” that illustrates the change that happened in the band between the classic Day For Night and the follow-up Trouble At The Henhouse — from a rock band with thoughtful lyrics to a thoughtful band that happens to rock. Between tracks three and four, the tempos change, the attitude changes, the song structures change, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think I would have gotten that much out of an entire album filled with that many out-and-out rockers, to be honest. What I’ve come to love with the Hip is an ability to straddle folk-rock and hard rock, favoring just slightly the folk-side of things due to Downie’s intriguing, oft-humorous, but always thoughtful lyrics.
Maybe the blame lays with producer Adam Kasper, then known for his work on the Foo Fighters’ most recent albums — both of which possessed a decidedly harder edge than their predecessors. Throughout the album, the guitars were turned up loud, panned hard left and right, drowning out Downie’s voice that floats right down the center of the soundstage. I found myself straining often to make out what Gord was singing — a shame with lyrics as impressive as his always are. This was likely a purposeful effect to play down the band’s true signature, Downie’s trademark tuneful, choked warbling. It was no secret that the Hip had struggled to take off in the U.S., while enjoying massive success in their homeland. Where the Hip are basically Canada’s answer to Pearl Jam, in the States the Hip have barely made a dent in the market. The band frequently sells out arenas at home, but it’s nothing unusual to find them playing small clubs stateside.
When I’ve played the Hip for the unitiated, it’s always been Downie’s soft barkings that draw the most comments. “You get used to it,” I say frequently, but I don’t believe it. I’ve always enjoyed Gord’s voice and have never understood how it turns people off. What is there to “get used to”? Gord’s slightly nasal delivery is no less characteristic than Michael Stipe’s voice, yet it somehow manages to stand out just enough to throw off newcomers. Perhaps it’s because it’s unfamiliar and unusual. When it comes to the unfamiliar and unusual, it appears that U.S. listeners are most hesitant. American audiences need their rock verified. Maybe we got burned on too much meaningless, throwaway rock the labels have shoveled out for so long, who knows.
All I can say is that before most Americans can commit to something, we need to know the music is good by seeing it endorsing commercials, backing action sequences and love scenes in movies, or hawked at the end of meaningless teen dramas. Without that, sorry guys, we just can’t determine if it’s any good. But we have no problem downloading mp3 after mp3 of pop pablum. (Remember spending hours searching for the latest sound-alike tune from Nickelback? They did, after all, have a track in Spiderman!) Parting with our hard-earned cash, however, for something that might be different sounding? No way; we’re not having it.
The identity issues evident early on in the album are erased quickly with multiple listens, as In Between Evolution finds its own groove and pacing. I probably won’t ever be able to hear it as a single, solid piece, but upon inspection, I can’t find a better place for the three oddballs on the album than right up front: Get ‘em out of the way so they don’t throw off a good flow later on. Placing them at the end would blow the emotional closer, another Hip trademark.
Regardless of whether it’s an up-tempo or down-tempo number, the Tragically Hip has managed to end on a note of beauty with a track that always leaves you wanting more. “Goodnight Josephine” is no different. An upbeat ballad of sorts to a young girl lost, as far as I can tell, in the distractions of teenage life, dating, and maybe abuse, “Goodnight Josephine” somehow manages to beat the odds its subject matter might impose on other bands to actually wind up sounding hopeful. And that’s the thing that really keeps the Hip from making it in the U.S.
There’s nary a song in their catalog about suffering, hurting others, drowning sorrows — and if you haven’t been paying attention to what sells today, these are sure-fire hit material. If the American music-buying public can’t openly sulk to their purchases, it has no place in their collections. Downie writes not out of a need to heal his own scars, but in hopes of getting everyone else see the good and the beauty that’s out there. That’s too bad; it’s hard to place happy, thoughtful songs in movies with lots of explosions and over-emotive teens. We just can’t get enough of that crap.
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