by Matt Meade
The Canoes are a schlubby band from Evanston Illinois.
How schlubby are they?
Well, the cover of the “American English” single is a paunchy guy failing to spin a basketball on his finger. I ask you, what is more schlubby than that?
The band sounds like a sloppy and invigored Sebadoh if Lou Barlow was annoyed all the time. With stoned bass lines and agitated guitar parts that are as bloodshot and itchy as your eye balls after you burn one, these songs stick to your ribs.
It’s fun. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. Half of the songs on 2011’s Roger even end with a tossed off ad lib like, “that was good,” or “sounds cool,” like all the songs were tracked live. Like it was some fun time they were all having, jamming together and not really worrying about the mistakes, or sound quality.
The Canoes nod and sway, Wilcoing their way through “Dealer’s Choice,” stretching their metaphors about language and hang-ups made from chains, like the words are hot pieces of bubblegum stuck to your shoe in the summer heat.
“Great Lake Mistake” might as well be some lost Gang of Four demo. The echo, and the nana-nana bass are straight from 1970s England. So clever, so brash, so stripped down. Who do these guys think are? The Clash? The Pogues? Jarvis Cocker fronting the Buzzcocks? Where do they even get off?
On “Bobby Goat,” they get real American again (by way of Canada) and come close to sounding like the Band. They tuba their way through the song and indulge in a too long guitar solo before wandering back to the phoneme buffet for some da dee das.
It’s like some barroom singalong played by a bunch of dudes from your neighborhood (Alex! My man! When did you get so good at the bass? I never knew…)
It’s hard not to think of The Violent Femmes’ shouty “American Music” when the boys are drinking their way through “American English.” Don’t you like American music? Cuz… I like American music best, baby.
They are having so much fun with their oohs, ahhs, and la dee das, you can almost be excused for not noticing the dark, self-effacing critiques buried in these songs, deep in the DNA between the nucleic acid and the exuberant horn section.
Lines like “We are not safe / We are not safe,” and “Kevin tossed his phone out the window / Thinking ‘bout the CIA,” hint at dissatisfaction, paranoia, fear and anger. The following lyric from “Middle West” belies an ignorance and vapidity that has become synonymous with the mentality of the everyday American.
I’ve got two books sitting on my night stand
I bought them last week at the mall
One’s about the conflicts in the middle east
And one’s about nothing at all
Despite what they would have you believe, these are not songs by, for, and about schlubby, cement-headed goons. These are tender-hearted poets telling smart little tales about aging, loving, and wrestling with what it means to be an American.
By the time they get to 2012’s adeptly produced Slim Century, they are telling Springsteenesque tales of a construction worker turned keyboard clacker in “Construction Sites,” and Dead Milkmen inspired romps like “Drinking Underage.” It’s like they have started taking things more seriously. Rory McPhail’s guitar is crisp and tasteful, the bass is at just the right place in the mix and the drummer is steady, aggressive, and let’s be honest, probably shirtless. It’s like they started to realize that their mission was too important not to take it all more seriously this time around. They even convince a pretty good female vocalist to join them on a song called “Updates.” How do you think they got that done? This is all not even mentioning “TV’s for Every Home” which is a song so triumphantly tongue in cheek that it may as well just be triumphant.
They reminisce and complain about the kids these days and their DIY scene, they creak like old men and take the sarcastic angst of The Hold Steady one step further than Craig Finn ever dared to. Make no mistake, the Canoes are out for blood.
In the song “Each Town Once Was the Frontier” when lead singer Elliot Teller explains, “You know/ Everything will disappear/ Each town once was the frontier.” It sums up their mission better than any other line in any other song. It is a lyric that is at once a heartbreaking reminder that we all must enter adulthood, as well as a halfhearted acceptance of the stark reality that is Manifest Destiny. In a way they are invoking Fitzgerald’s words from the final pages of The Great Gatsby, “I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”
It’s not such a stretch. That conflation of property and sex, birth and death, innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood, are exactly the concepts this seemingly humble band from Evanston are struggling with. Just like Fitzgerald. After all, Gatsby is about the American Dream, but it’s also about a girl. The Canoes are a simple, upbeat bar band, who happen to have read Babylon Revisited.
So, maybe The Canoes are not schlubbs? But what about the picture of the guy with the basketball? I’m just not sure anymore.
Somehow the songs they write sound like they are cribbed from the rehearsal sessions of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Modest Mouse, and are also about man coming face to face with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder… and then ruining it.
After a while it becomes too tiring to figure out exactly where the sarcasm begins and ends and too exhausting to play spot the influence and too depressing to curse The Man when he is obviously gonna win in the end anyway. After a while it is more fulfilling to just enjoy the solid songcraft, the fun hooks, and the delirious longing for girls who have gone away and an America that never existed.
Check out “Giving up the Ghost,” for example. With the same gleeful cadence Michael Stipe used while inviting the end of the world, Teller explains geopolitics better than Noam Chomsky, informing us that, “Western nation’s find / they’re on a slow decline / Cuz every good time’s gotta have and end,” and then with melancholy and embarrassment and just a hint of pride at the stupidity of it all, he admits, “Well they cheer when they hear him say / God was born in the USA.”
Where else would God be born? You tell me.