Part 4: How Bob Rocks (World Container-We Are the Same)
If you’re around my age, you’ll remember what happened when Bob Rock produced Metallica’s Black Album. He took an already successful band, changed up their regular studio tendencies, and ended up with a legendary rock record. Some fans hated it—the sound had changed too much; the band wasn’t as heavy as they used to be. But this producer-band union opened the band’s catalogue up to a diverse new audience.
So what would happen when Bob Rock combined with Canada’s rock n roll guys next door? The Hip added two albums to their catalogue where they take risks, step outside of their tried and true formulas, and continue their evolution by maturing as songwriters and performers.
Here’s my nostalgia trip for this entry. When I was first getting into this record after its release, I was on a trip through Southern France (pretty nice, hey?). Anyways, there was a specific stretch where I was sitting in the front of a bus travelling through the countryside of Provence. Man, it was beautifully peaceful. Well, on my iPod mini, I couldn’t stop listening to the first four songs on World Container. There was a new sound for The Hip here; and the songs—the first four in particular—were undeniably catchy. “Yer Not the Ocean” is more in your face than the band had sounded since Phantom Power; “The Lonely End of the Rink” is everything I love about a Gord Downie lyric (the title alone does it for me); “In View”—I’ll get to in a bit; and “Fly”, despite being a more cliché title for Downie, is positive and infectious.
Bob Rock gave the sound of this record more body than the Hip’s past recordings. He also seems to have influenced the arrangements of their songs. Everything on this record follows a more traditional pop structure. For example, the signature guitar solo at the end of many epic Hip tracks is moved to the middle of songs. Choruses are more predictable and very catchy. This is a major shift from the albums I focused on in Part 3 of this blog.
This shift works in a lot of ways. “In View”, easily the band’s closest attempt at a pop song, is so upbeat that it'll make the sun shine through a storm in Saskatchewan, Provence, or Southern "Ontari-ari-o". I really dig this song. I know it’s great because my wife automatically starts bobbing her head when it comes on.
These first four songs and the two that follow—“Luv (Sic) and “The Kids Don’t Get It”—can get stuck in your head quite easily; some may not like the pop influence, but it’s the first time this has happened on a Hip record this consistently since Fully Completely. Downie’s vocal delivery on tracks like “The Kids…” is also playful and powerful—something that continues through the rest of the Hip’s catalogue.
Beyond these tracks is where a slight dilemma lies: the rest of the record doesn’t match the intensity and quality of the first six tracks; it's like my feeling toward Music @ Work. There are good songs outside of the singles, but are the changes to the band’s tried and true formulas to blame? Quite possibly. Is "In View" just too damn catchy? Most definitely.
Modern Gem of this record: Listen to intently to the lyrics in “Fly” and think of Gord Downie. I hope he’s made it to Moonbeam.
We Are The Same
In a previous blog, I alluded to how playing Hip tunes around a campfire was my introduction to songwriting and musicianship. We Are The Same seems to be the most perfect record to sit and strum along to since Road Apples. So, allow me to have a conversation with myself:
AA’s self: How come you didn’t listen to this album all the way through until now?
AA: Uhhhhh. When it came out, I had my head up my a** listening only to 60’s and 70’s soul and anything Questlove touched. Remember? I was getting ready to write a soul-inspired record.
AA’s self: That doesn’t answer my question.
AA: Well, Self, I’m sorry that I deprived you of this gem. We good?
AA’s self: …just don’t do it again.
Through the chronological sequence of The Hip’s catalogue, this album is an amazing sonic anomaly. It diversifies their catalogue in a fashion reminiscent of The Beatles, even Radiohead, but in The Hip's own way; it is a departure from any other record they've created, and it works.
Speaking of The Beatles, did Sir George Martin get a hold of the band and Bob Rock for this one? I mean, accordion, string arrangements, pedal steel, flugelhorn, piano (etc.) on a Hip record? There are also layered and polished harmonies on this record. Any Hip fan loves the way Paul Langlois lets loose on his background vocals on past records, but—again—the new polished approach works on this album. An early 90’s Hip enthusiast might spit at the thought of all of this, so let me attempt to provide a little perspective:
• This album cements the band’s legacy as excellent songwriters. There’s a beauty, honesty, diversity, and accessibility on this record that is admirable.
• Most profoundly, Gord Downie has always been a great rock singer, but on this album he is a great singer, period. (Full credit to Bob Rock, I imagine. Just recall my assessment of “The Kids Don’t Get It” performance). Explanation: There are times in rock n roll where a singer just needs to let it buck and if a note here or there is a little sharp or flat? No big deal. Tom Petty would say, “It’s good enough for rock n roll.” On this record, Gord doesn’t miss a note while ranging from quiet and honest, to full-bodied and powerful. His voice is crystal clear and forward in the mix, lyrics are less figurative, and each word is clearly emphasized. If you’re a singalong Hip fan, this is the most singalongable album since 1991.
Did I just say “singalongable”??? Good.
OK. I do have one minor critique. There are a few songs on here that evoke The Hip of old—“Speed River”, “Love is a First”. This is a very good thing, but they seem somewhat, I repeat SOMEWHAT, out of place on a record with songs sandwiched between two country-inspired tracks. Nevertheless, if you haven’t clued in, I really love this record.
I should also mention that my recent feelings on this record might have been influenced heavily by scenery. I was driving through rural Saskatchewan backroads on a sunny summer day while listening to the album multiple times. The somewhat surprising balance between country and rock on this record just screams rural Saskatchewan (or Ontario for that matter) to me. Given the guys-next-door in Anytown, Canada aura of this band, maybe this is something I’ve been waiting for. In fact, I can picture the boys in the band sitting around a campfire, trading songs off this album with Sarah Harmer and Jim Cuddy.
Is it only me? Sorry, just my version of a little Canadian rock fantasy camp, I guess.
A few of the excellent songs on this record that get in my head from time-to-time: “Morning Moon”, “Honey, Please”, “The Last Recluse” (listen for the Radiohead OK Computer-like sound in the back half of the tune), ”The Depression Suite”, “Love is a First”.