Sunday, May 3, 2009

A review of the new Tragically Hip album: We Are The Same

I've been listening to the new Hip album (We Are The Same) quite a bit over the past few weeks and am really enjoying it. It is very much a middle-of-the-road type of album with only a couple out and out rockers on it. The album is rootsier than previous efforts and has a country feel to it, although that sense dissipated a bit the more I listened to it.

The Bob Rock fears are again overblown, at least in terms of Rock turning the Hip into top 40 arena rockers. He does introduce some studio tricks and has fleshed out their sound with trumpets, strings and a mandolin, amongst other things. Whether or not this is a good thing will be a matter of personal preference but, for me, I like it in a few spots but find it dilutes the rock groove in others.

All in all, I think album is the logical continuation of the way they have been heading for some time. The last album, World Container, had a number of hard songs on it (e.g. The Kids Don't Get It), but I found the softer, more melodic songs to be stronger. Is this due to the advancing age of the various band members or, perhaps, due to my own advancing years (note to self: Stifle tears and rage against the dying of the light)? I think both of the above explanations are likely. The Hip can still bring it, particularly live, but they are better musicians than in the old days and are making more complex and refined songs.

My simple take on the album: Back in the day I would listen to Up To Here, Fully Completely, etc. while partying at a cottage. Now, We Are The Same, would be the perfect soundtrack for late afternoon / early evening beers at the cottage. If things start to go off the rails you can always put on some of the old stuff.

I'm not up on the official order of the songs since I've been listening to it on my iPod and the download and subsequent upload to my iPod Shuffle has created its own order of play. That said I'll comment on them in order as there are a couple of oddball things about the actual order of play (e.g. almost all the uptempo songs are on the 2nd half of the record).

Here are my thoughts....

Morning Moon - A great song loosely based on a question one of Gord's kids asked him ('why can you still the moon sometimes when the sun is up). This is the Hip in Ahead By A Century / Bobcaygeon acoustic mode. Interesting and sophisticated.

Honey, Please - I didn't give this one much notice for the first few listens but it has definitely grown on me. Surprisingly uptempo yet quite melodic. A more basic approach to the instrumentation when played live could make this a real rocker. The opening notes make me think Springsteen - Hungry Heart, perhaps?

The Last Recluse - Another song I glossed over the first couple of times. After about the third listen the chorus had wormed its way into my head. I've grown to become quite fond of this one and the various bits of Canadiana it name checks (e.g. Canada goose, the black canoe), but this is very much one of those personal preference Hip songs as I can see people dismissing it. An odd choice for the all-important song 3 slot.

Coffee Girl - Instant classic. Simple but effective. The trumpet is a nice touch.

5. Now The Struggle Has A Name - This one will throw some long-time fans. Very lush and filled with strings. Huh? I think it works although I've seen some comments that liken it to Coldplay (really??). This song is very much in the same vein as World Container (the song). Although, it must be said, that I was told by someone who is a casual fan at best that they really liked this song, and I know that they detest World Container (the song). So go figure.

6. The Depression Suite - The Hip's longest song to date. This song is composed of three suites. I really like the first one - The Book - and the third - Don't You Wanna See How It Ends? I may also like the middle suite - NewOrleansWorld - but because the song is so long it rarely captures my attention for a full, uninterrupted listen. That said, the "Gimme gimme" bit is kind of lame. This is a very good song that holds up with anything they've done. However, it is too long a song for the middle of the album - obviously it is intended to be the album centrepiece, but when listening to the album straight through it bogs down here. Perhaps this could have been the album closer? Bring on the requisiteness strangeness.

7. The Exact Feeling - A decent enough mid-tempo song but fairly forgettable. Some nice lyrics. This works as a late album song and some people will gravitate to it while others will probably never give it a second thought. Better 'filler' than on recent albums.

8. Queen of the Furrows - Perhaps the best rock song on the album. A surprising rocker to be sure - "this is how I farm, eyes up and ears down low" is not exactly "I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride" and that's a good thing. This is how I feel.

9. Speed River - This is a classic late album Hip track. It is pretty basic and repetitive lyrically but I like it. It is infectious. Gimme a dose of the hard stuff.

10. Frozen In My Tracks - Hip albums always seem to have some sort of sinister and angry song and that is this one on We Are The Same. Not buying the "whoa-ohs". Weakest song on the album.

11. Love Is A First - A classic rocker and the closest the Hip have ever come in the studio to capturing their live sound. I can almost already hear Gordie belting out "Love is a curse..." at Massey Hall later this month. It should be a show highlight.

12. Country Day - Solid song and a good, but not great album closer. I think Now the Struggle Has A Name or The Depression Suite would have been better choices to close the album, but in this iPod age that is a small quibble.

Bonus track: Hush (iTunes special, I think) - Gordie doing Rufus Wainwright doing Leonard Cohen. Would have been a better fit on a Downie solo album.

The album artwork: Pretty decent. Quite good, in fact. It matches the vibe of the record. Not as good as Trouble at the Henhouse, but one of their better covers.

Overall: A solid album. Perhaps their best since Phantom Power, although some in between probably had better individual songs. Highly recommended but temper your expectations - they won't be recording another Fully Completely or Up To Here. Those days are gone.

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