As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m pleased to have been picked as one of ten music writers taking part in a summer-long event at another site, with us each picking ten great albums to review over a 100 day period. Today, my fourth such pick… and you can see others from the other nine music fans at http://www.slicethelife.com
Well, last time out I reviewed one of rock’s all-time best-known and best-loved albums, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper… This time around, I’m going for something a little more obscure. Then again, it would be hard to find something less obscure! Is it country? Is it rock? Is it bluegrass? Today I pick an album which arrived 20 years after the last one I reviewed: Blue Rodeo‘s amazing 1987 debut, Outskirts.
Now, I’m guessing most readers – my American friends, and ones down under, in Europe and almost anywhere else – are saying “Who? What’s that? Huh?” Canadians though are probably saying “Oh yeah! I haven’t listened to that in years! Let me go get my copy and blow the dust off it!”. Because while all but unknown outside of the Great White North, at home they’ve scratched their way into being a cultural institution and are as much a part of the Canadian mosaic as Canada geese and Maple Leafs hockey jerseys.
An overview for the non-Canucks. If the Beatles revolved around Lennon & McCartney and the Eagles centered on Henley and Frey; Blue Rodeo is essentially the long-standing project of two friends, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. The pair were school buddies back in the ’70s in Toronto, and formed a band not long out of school. They were the Hifis, for what it’s worth, and at the time were chasing trends and chasing their star all the way to the lights of Broadway. A short spell in New York City didn’t pan out well and soon they were back in Ontario, forming a new band with a new attitude – Blue Rodeo. Enter bassist Bazil Donovan and you have the foundation of one of the land’s best-loved bands, then and now. For the first album, jazzy, freestyle keyboardist Bob Wiseman and drummer Cleave Anderson were in the band as well, though neither ended up being in for the long haul.
They played music that wasn’t quite like most of the other bands in Toronto bars were playing back in the mid-’80s and built up a loyal following before a branch of Warner Brothers signed them around ’86. The resulting first album is brilliant in its music and bold in its against-the-grain approach.
People love to categorize and put music into neat little boxes for genre. Disco. Punk. Rock. Country. Jazz…and on and on. The trouble is, some things don’t fit any of these boxes. Or they check off too many of the boxes. Blue Rodeo, especially back then, were one of these categorization dilemmas. Their twangy guitars and lyrics about losers seemed country-ish but they didn’t sound like Reba McEntyre or Garth Brooks. They kind of rocked, but they were worlds away from Bon Jovi or Def Leppard. Such things can keep a band from finding its niche and derail a career before it gets going, and it could have been that way for Blue Rodeo. Thankfully, there was one hometown radio station which had a “what the hell, if it’s good we’ll spin it, attitude.”
If CFNY back then was known for being on the cutting edge of British imports and North America’s biggest booster of Echo & the Bunnymen, the Stranglers and Simple Minds, it didn’t mind throwing in Springsteen, Prince or Johnny Cash as well. Music author and radio executive Alan Cross was the overnight DJ on the station back in the late-’80s. “Staff were surprised at the quality,” he told me recently, “yes, it had a country feel, but the palette of sounds in alt-rock was much, much more broad back then. We had no trouble playing it.”
Indeed they didn’t, and after it caught on there, other Toronto stations took a chance on it too. Then ones in Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver… soon the album was all over the airwaves from Atlantic to Pacific. And deservedly so.
The album showcased the Odd Couple pairing of Cuddy and Keelor exceptionally well. Cuddy says of Keelor “his musicality is so different than mine.His is so messy, mine is so neat…we push and pull each other a lot.” Left to their own devices, Keelor would have probably turned out a volume-turned-to-11 retro rockabilly affair. Cuddy, a suave Bryan Ferry-in-blue-jeans type record. Together they created their own sound, which we first heard on Outskirts.
The album is ten songs which all fit together nicely as a showcase of what would come to be called “Americana” music; if they now sometimes get compared to Steve Earle, it’s not a surprise. Jim recently mentioned Earle as being someone they listened to when making the record. He mentioned Spandau Ballet in the same clip, suggesting the listener was in for something different! You have Greg’s bold, throaty voice and his matching Gretsch guitar playing off Jim’s sweeter pop voice and rhythm guitars topped with a more than competent rhythm section and Bobby’s seemingly ad-libbed organ and accordion riffs, all balanced on some of the finest melodies this side of Liverpool. Ten songs singing the praises of the losers who keep on keeping on, those on “the outskirts of life” where “dreams seldom come true.”
From the quick-building acapella intro which builds into the foot-stomping “Heart Like Mine” through the great rockers like “Rose-coloured Glasses” and “5 Will Get You 6” to the wonderful balladry of “Rebel” and “Try” to the semi-hypnotic“Piranha Pool” with its jam band sound (not an accident; they recorded several different versions of Wiseman’s keyboard riffing and actually used a different one on the remixed re-release of the record a few years back) the songs take you into their world for a visit and make you appreciate all the colors not in a rainbow.
Although it took awhile, the album hit the Canaidian top 20 and gave them a top 40 hit in “Rose-coloured Glasses”…and “Try.” Oh yes, that lovely ballad alone would have been enough to earn them a spot in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame if they’d quit after this album – which thankfully they didn’t! The song topped country charts but also was a smash on radio from the metal stations to the quiet-sounds-at-work channels. Outskirts went quadruple platinum in Canada, which would be about the norm for them early on. Their first five albums all went multi-platinum. Back at CFNY, it ended up being the #10 album of the year, wedged between Echo & the Bunnymen and Pink Floyd! How’s that for variety.
For me, it took a few listens on the radio before I could reconcile to my ’80s-brain “hey, this is country but it’s also amazing!” I soon bought the CD and it quickly became one of my favorites for years. When I lost my collection about ten years back (a story for another day) it was one of the first I was sure to re-purchase. I became a regular at their shows, and while they are a great band to see at a large ampitheatre on a summer’s evening, they were flat out the best bar band I’ve ever seen back in the Outskirts days. And I saw them in many a bar, beer in hand, no doubt singing along with the few hundred others in attendance. I also had the pleasure of meeting them a time or two (I was even in a private album release party for one of their albums) and have to say that, yes, Jim and Greg are as nice and down to earth as they seem in interviews.
There’s something universal about them and their music it seems, at least to us Canadians. Both my parents loved music, but their tastes seldom overlapped and even less frequently did they coincide with mine. But at different times, my late Mom phoned me to tell me “I was just watching ‘your’ Blue Rodeo on TV. I like them!” and my Dad once was changing channels when I was visiting him when we came across Jim and Greg in some interview clip. He stopped there, telling me “those are those Blue Rodeo guys. Let’s watch this.”
They’ve put out over a dozen more albums since, and their next two after this one, Diamond Mine and Casino, are also outstanding (it made which one to pick a bit of a challenge) but for those wanting some “real”, organic music to add to their day, Outskirts is probably a good place to begin.
Is it country? Is it rock? Is it bluegrass? Yes, yes and yes, but mainly it’s “damn fine music.”