Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Music Review: Canadian Invasion -- Three Cheers for the Invisible Hand

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Angering parents everywhere and getting his apparel and related merchandise banned from school, in the early ‘90s Bart Simpson proudly proclaimed that he was “an underachiever and proud of it.” When it comes to the band Canadian Invasion, musically the group overachieves with gorgeous Britpop-inspired melodies from The Doves and Oasis, old-fashioned Velvet Underground-like harmonies, the alt-country sound of Wilco, along with hooks that recall The Shins and Snow Patrol.

However, lyrically and in contradiction to the deceptively beautiful vocalization of lead singer Andy Canadian, the band seems to aim directly for the underachieving suburban Bart Simpsons in all of us. As though leveling a tuneful joust, the very American band — right out of Philadelphia (yes, Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s hometown, not Quebec or Montreal as one would assume) — does grant that the name is a bit silly. Andy Canadian proudly insists it was theirs “even before the South Park movie," and nonetheless it’s since “really encapsulated what the band is about” as he explained in the press release.

Dishing up eleven tracks intended as “a satirical assault on American ‘values’,” Canadian continues by explaining that the group refers to themselves as “America’s last line of defense against the evil Canadian socialist empire’s pernicious ideology of cheap health care and gun control.” This concept seems to be the focal point of their upcoming February 17 release from the Transit of Venus label, Three Cheers For the Invisible Hand, as Canadian, along with bassist Jim Foley, drummer George Groves, lead guitarist Eric Miller, and guitarist and backing vocalist Chris Morita relish in the delightful absurdity of American suburbia and hum-drum lives.

Songs about time-suckage and endless drinking kick off the album in the spirited tongue-in-cheek opener ”Pop Magic Fantastical Masterpiece,” as they open with a sound that recalls The Lemonheads’ “Into Your Arms,” before the lyrics move away from that radio favorite to Invasion’s choice of “I raise my empty glass and waste a bit more time.”

Pouring out intricately laced character studies of people who fall asleep in tanning beds and a best friend who “lost her heart to a dinosaur who wakes up every morning on the kitchen floor,” the group elates in lulling us into submission with sweet sounding melodies that only upon a second or third close listen do we realize seem far more sinister than we'd assumed.

After only a few tracks passively digested in the car, the mischievous group seemed like the type of band you’d hire for a rich kid’s birthday party… until you get wind of what they’re actually saying, that is, as their primary goal is articulating the emptiness of suburban life as Canadian feels that they’re essentially “a non-place, negatively defined as not-the-city and not-the country.”

With “characters… [that] float listlessly through a world they don’t feel part of, grasping at anything around them that might give them an identity,” Canadian Invasion draws heavily from Sartre and Camus styled existentialist absurdity and also reminds me of the same dissociative depersonalization disorder used in the recent comedic indie film, Numb.

Aspiring more to become the musical version of filmmaker David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) or dark short story author Raymond Carver (whose work was used as the basis of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts), Canadian’s press notes continue that the group’s songs — especially the album’s title track — work as “a commentary” on the “’invisible hand’ of progress and equilibrium,” that has resulted in individuals’ “desperate, ghost-like existences, [and] ones they feel incapable of changing.”

Having earned quite a following around the East Coast, which they tour incessantly, Canadian Invasion has found like-minded colleagues, playing alongside such musical icons as David Bowie and Lou Reed. And once one hears the album’s third track complete with the security-alert title “Standing On the Shoulders of the Carcass of John Mayer” as they update the central premise of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” of shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die,” by singing about murdering “John” who cut in line at the grocery store yet in doing so he still “doesn’t feel like an asshole” thanks to his interest in Hegel and Nietzsche, you realize they’re right at home in the world of Bowie and Reed.

Slightly pretentious and hard to fall for lyrically, it’s nonetheless comprised of some truly awe-inspiringly rich arrangements, instantly catchy ditties, and unexpectedly filled with beauty such as the incredible Beatles-esque “But You’re God (And I’m Me,”) and Doves-like “My Swashbuckling Days Are Over.”

And while it’s extremely clever to try and counter that with ugly lyrics so that it’s a bit dissonant, maybe the remedy would’ve been a bit less Hegel and Nietzsche and a bit more Lynch to surprise us with humor and intrigue since just pairing up the lyrics with the great hooks and catchy tracks isn’t enough after you start really paying attention to the words.

The negativity and downright gloominess of the lyrics about underachievers who mostly kill time, trying to find alcohol or — going for the twang in a Wilco-styled alt-country track “Neighbors” — as they lament an “empty whiskey bottle” or in the equally bleak yet contradictorily beautiful sounding “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” “crashing your party/refusing to leave” is sure to earn them fans among the college set. But by not offering humor or going for the fully absurd (a la Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, or Beck), mostly it’s a downer dressed up as a pop record.

Despite this, the sheer musicality of the tracks are gorgeously addictive with Britpop anthem-like builds as in the first two tracks, excellent employment of the guitar (on “…John Mayer”) and interesting usages of a Rhodes piano (“How to Build a Jetpack”), an appropriate organ for “The Last Time I Went to Church,” and a wonderful alt-slow dance tune “But You’re God (And I’m Me)” that’s an album standout, utilizing the trumpet, flugelhorn, and saxophone.

And overall, I prefer the group’s undeniably talented, over-achieving musical side that earned it countless plays in my car stereo but ultimately, the more I listened to it, the more I realized that I could definitely pass on some of the album’s more incessant attempts to depress with musical finger-pointing at the meaninglessness of this American life.

As in the end, other over-achievers like Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Ben Folds, Belle and Sebastian, Beck, Radiohead, Wilco, and many others have managed to wax about absurdity with a bit humor, joy, and celebration in their yarns about under achievers rather than just fixating on characters (i.e. American suburbanites) who “don’t feel like an asshole” when every other word, phrase, or chorus confirms precisely the opposite. And although unfortunately, nobody — aside from the band — gets to be in on the joke, before the punchlines all begin to blur together, it’s fitting background music with which to raise an “empty glass” or “empty whiskey bottle” and “waste a bit more time.”

Track List:

1. Pop Magic Fantastical Masterpiece

2. My Swashbuckling Days Are Over

3. Standing on the Shoulders of the Carcass of John Mayer

4. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

5. How to Build a Jetpack

6. One Hand Claps the Other

7. The Last Time I Went to Church

8. But You’re God (And I’m Me)

9. Three Cheers for the Invisible Hand

10. Juvenilia

11. Neighbors

Best Buy Co, Inc.