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Juno & Feist

I'm not so much of a blind Canadaphile to be unaware of the fact that the country has its annoying quirks. Like the Progressive Conservative Party, eh? You cannot be both, I don't care what country you're from. And the fact that their Elvis is a figure skater. Weird, and pretty annoying. Still, it makes me wonder how they can come up with things like that and still be as cool as they are. Probably precisely because they think of themselves as so uncool compared to us. Hey, Canadians, wake up! Our Elvis died on the crapper!

Of course Canadian music is also like that. They fret endlessly about how American culture is overwhelming them, but at the same time, if you listen to CBC Radio for instance, it's like you took one part NPR - so far so good - but then mixed in three parts Clear Channel. You can just feel how their love/hate towards us is pretty heavily weighted toward love, and that they hate themselves for it.

Which is a long, meandering way to get to my point - that Canadian music fans, when they decide to support their own, consistently come up with better choices than we do. Canadians held their version of the Grammy's this week - The Junos - and it's a case in point. The biggest winner was indie chick-singer phenom Feist, whose catchiness and huggability is just this side of bearable. But she is smart and has undeniable artistic merit. Compare this to the Grammys' big winner: Amy Winehouse, a train wreck whose big hit, "Rehab," was basically a well-done but derivatively retro R&B number which got a huge boost because of the much-celebrated autobiographical troubles of its writer. And she's not even American. At least Feist's "1 2 3 4" was nothing if not quirky and original. Easy to get sick of, yes, an iPod commercial, yes - but Canadians seem to reward quirks with their big prizes rather than relegate them to easily dismissed cult status.

blue_rodeo.jpgThey also know how to support their alt-country bands. Blue Rodeo was the other big winner at the Junos, a band that, to me at least, roughly parallels the Jayhawks here in the U.S. Founded at about the same time (the late '80s), and with their biggest artistic successes coming at about the same time (early-to-mid '90s), both Blue Rodeo and the Jayhawks have traveled the same musical road. They both make achingly beautiful songs that straddle the line between hard twang and Beatles-esque psychedelic pop, and they both have soaring dual vocals (Gary Louris and Mark Olson for the Jayhawks, Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy for Blue Rodeo). Both are beloved by music critics (like me).

The big difference is that Blue Rodeo has been a huge commercial successs in their country while the Jayhawks have never had two dimes to rub together in the good ol' U.S. of A, where honest, un-bombastic alt-country acts have never been embraced as worthy of anything more than an afterthought on the way to the Big Hat section. At the Junos, Blue Rodeo won Group of the Year. Wow. Can you imagine an alt-country act, say Steve Earle or even Wilco, winning something like that at the Grammys? Never in a billion years. Blue Rodeo's 2007 record, Small Miracles, won the Juno for adult alternative album and the video for its memorable lead track, "C'mon," won for video of the year.

"C'mon" is the kind of career-topping moment that the Jayhawks deserved but never got. The song is a jaunty, country rock number with clever lyrics and a chorus with enough hooks to land a boatload of cod off Nova Scotia. It's just the kind of wonderful song the Jayhawks and scores of other chronically unsuccessful American alt-country bands, from the Bottle Rockets to Whiskeytown, made year after year without a whiff of recognition from the wider world. But "C'mon" is a big, fat award-winner in a country that much more often embraces artists who don't fit the kinds of commercial straitjackets imposed on American tastes.

Canadians really shouldn't envy us. Like all truly cool people, they know not how much cooler they already are.

-

See what else is rattlin' round Don's Root Cellar.



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Posted on April 10, 2008


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