Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Grand Bounce - Gord Downie

The Grand Bounce

Gord Downie
Maplemusic Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

The relationship between Gord Downie’s solo output and his parent catalog as lead songwriter in The Tragically Hip has to be one of modern radio-rock’s strangest. Whereas most artists gone-solo tend to spotlight what’s attributed as their best contributions to a band’s democracy, Downie’s non-Hip output has been just that; a complete break from the tried-and-true legacy of Canada’s contemporary powerhouse, Coke Machine Glow – and, to a lesser extent, Battle Of the Nudes – prided themselves on existing without the commercial expectations that have slowly eroded The Tragically Hip’s versatility. And for open-minded listeners unafraid of distinguishing Gord Downie from his famous band, these records are exhibits A and B in unraveling Downie’s soul.

When ‘The East Wind’ bounds into its full-band awareness with polished, radio-ready guitar strums, many of these fans will dread counting the years in which Downie has let his solo trajectory languish. That’s seven years which, if you’re a member of The Tragically Hip, mean fairly little given how their last two LP’s have only cemented their preexisting fanbase. To contrast, if you’re a member of Death Cab For Cutie, seven years mean everything. So maybe it’s logical that The Grand Bounce’s accessible folk-pop opener and each album track thereafter is produced by Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla. By covering everything from polka to bluegrass, Downie’s two prior works have swept him up a generous pile of tags, everything from poet to patriot, so why not jump the proverbial shark with The Grand Bounce’s relative directness? Adhering not only to dependable verse-and-chorus songwriting but also accepting his bread-and-butter skills, Downie gives up Hip-ish rock songs (‘The Drowning Machine’, ‘Night Is For Getting’) alongside layered folk songs (‘As A Mover’, ‘Retrace’) which Walla adequately spit-shines with some indie-modernism. The results of Downie and Walla working together are too organic to sound as if they’d calculated this beforehand, and no production polish could ever disguise Downie’s idiosyncratic approach to, well, everything. Lyrically and vocally, Downie’s as unpredictable and affecting as ever, especially on a few black sheep tracks that scathe the sequencing. ‘Moonslow Yer Lashes’ is pretty much as quirky as its title suggests, but you’ll find its silver lining the same way you probably had to on previous solo records. We’re not supposed to get too close to Downie, after all, and The Grand Bounce tows us between cleverly quaint and unfamiliar even despite its radio-ready intentions.

First impressions will likely resound with uncertainty for fans of Coke Machine Glow or Battle Of the Nudes, but in time The Grand Bounce feels as solid – if less ambitious – in league with his predecessors. Some introspection in Downie’s lyrics has subsided, or at least become more imperative and action-oriented, but he’s almost merging his solo work to The Tragically Hip’s reliable Can-Rock material. In this strange case where Downie fans and Hip fans can be split into two camps of equal pride and loyalty, think of The Grand Bounce as the bridge.

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