Headstones – [Discography Review]

Headstones – [Discography Review]

Friday, 25 October 2013

If you see enough “rock n’ roll” movies, eventually you begin to realize that there are always a few key points that are totally unbelievable: the best bands came from nothing (and a lot of them started by accident); their rise to greatness really begins at the moment the hardworking group sticks it to the man and starts doing things their own way, they reach a pinnacle of appeal and creative power at roughly the same time or immediately before they begin to fall, excess and pressure begin to play a factor in the band and begin to take their toll and eventually the ride ends – with either disillusionment (see The Runaways, Prey For Rock N’ Roll or Rock Star) or with death (see The Doors or Hard Core Logo). It might seem a little formulaic, but the thing about rock n’ roll (as well as the movies about it) is that the best parts are both the universal plot points and those which are unique and could never be told in any other story – ever.

As far as the build and rise to greatness goes, the Headstones’ origin story could never have been written better. First conceived in a prison town (Kingston), the Headstones really began to find their fortune in the Big Smoke (a.k.a. Toronto, Canada). There they quickly won an impressive fan base thanks to their “street punks with poetic souls” image and demeanor, combined with a fantastic live show and an iron man’s tour schedule which the band seldom broke. It was great, but it was doomed to only work for a short while.

Eventually, the evils that the band reveled in (and wrote songs about) began to catch up with them. The tales of darkness and drugs that Hugh Dillon sang about in songs like “Heart Of Darkness,” “Oh My God” and “Pretty Little Death Song” (to name only a few) turned out to be more autobiographical than fans knew; those events weren’t exactly things of the past and everyone in the band was indulging in the rock n’ roll riders supplied by venues and at tour stops on the wrong side of the tracks too. The creative juices were becoming stemmed and diverted by other addictions and endeavors by the time Nickels For Your Nightmares appeared in 2000 and while the record played okay, the strain of a seemingly unending tour and appearance schedule was beginning to show. When The Oracle Of Hi-Fi arrived in 2002, the wheels had fallen off; the band’s claim that the leaner sound on it was an attempt to get back to basics it sounded fair, but fans knew that what the Headstones had done on Oracle was just about all they could manage. They were exhausted and more than a little strung out.

After the bottom fell out on the Oracle cycle, the Headstones could have done any number of things but rather than drag it out, the members put the band down instead of waiting for the tragic event which usually brings the average rock movie to a close. They went against type and got out alive; singer Hugh Dillon got clean and sober, bassist Tim White became a record producer, Trent Carr put his guitar down and became a bartender and drummer Dale Harrison became a hired gun, sitting behind the kit and playing for those who wanted his brand of power. Dillon briefly played the roll of rock frontman again with the Hugh Dillon Redemption Choir, but the appeal just wasn’t there and the project was short-lived (because offers for acting roles were beginning to multiply for him.) In some ways, the Headstones’ was a storybook ending – if not the most fulfilling one.

That the story didn’t come to a hard close may have been why fans held onto the legacy of the Headstones the way they did. Those fans did not regularly bang on the doors of the band members’ homes and beg for a reunion – they just hoped, kept watching and waited. When the band did announce a few shows in 2011 (including a benefit for friend Randy Kwan – who helped write a few of the Headstones’ earliest songs), they jumped on tickets. The shows sold out and were so well-received that it got the band members thinking – what more could they do?

In retrospect, while they probably could have jumped back into the music business head first, they instead stepped back in carefully and by very measured degrees – always mindful of the depth at which they were treading. After the first set of dates sold out and were met with great favor, they scheduled another slightly longer series of shows (the first series of dates was booked around Ontario, the second ran from British Columbia to Quebec), when the band members’ work schedules permitted. That second series of shows was met with even more enthusiastic fanfare and by it, the band was inspired. They tried recording a new song and gave it away for free using social media like professionals – even though the Headstones had broken up long before facebook or twitter or any other social media outlet was a glimmer in any of their programmers’ eyes. That one song (“Binthiswayforyears”) was received with rabid fury, and got the Headstones back on the road AGAIN to still more applause.

Finally, after that success, the Headstones bit the bullet. They knew then that people were still interested to see them play live and they knew that new music was clearly of interest to their fans. Curious, they wanted to see how far that interest went – so the Headstones set up a PledgeMusic account and asked their fans to help them fund the making of their first full-length album of new Headstones music in over ten years. They didn’t know if it would work, but the baby step paradigm the band had taken to that point was working well so far and they must have felt like they wouldn’t know for sure unless they asked.

Fans answered the call and the Headstones had one hundred percent of their funding goal to make a new record met within the first twenty-four hours of the project’s announcement. After the album was completed, Headstones’ management shopped the album to a few record labels and got a new contract with Frostbyte Records, distributed by Universal Music (who already had a long working relationship with the band) effortlessly. It was just that easy; in an act of almost Cinderella-story-style perfection, the Headstones returned on terms with which they were comfortable to a situation in which anyone would consider themselves lucky.

No one could have written it better if they tried. And the best part is that the soundtrack to this story has been pressed into platinum and gold.

Demo Gods
(MCA, 1991)
While the Headstones would eventually become one of the biggest and most successful Canadian bands of the 1990s, they didn’t appear from nowhere ready to conquer the world – they had to grow into the station they’d eventually occupy. Most bands need that sort of growth period to get settled and focused but, after one takes that into consideration, it’s easy to see what an achievement Demo Gods represents. Within this set of demos lie a pretty detailed set of blueprints for songs which would eventually appear on both the Headstones’ debut album, Picture Of Health, and Teeth and Tissue (their sophomore album) as well as one song which would eventually appear on their 2013 release, Love + Fury.

That these songs were able to hang on through lineup changes (bassist Tim White hadn’t joined yet – his predecessor Frank Lippai is credited on Demo Gods) and years of writing and recording new material and touring speaks volumes to their quality; songs which don’t immediately get used in setlists and on albums usually fall by the wayside and ultimately get forgotten by most bands, but these hung on. Why? Because they are just that good. The band must have known they were onto something too; these recordings are raw, but one listen proves that many of these songs are diamonds in the rough.

As rough and raw as they are, the inherent potential of the songs on Demo Gods is undeniable. Right away, the version of “When Something Stands For Nothing” which appears on this cassette will pique ears and interest easily. There, the lyric sheet still needs a bit of spit-shine before it’s ready to appear on Picture Of Health (the famous words, “And this one’s for nothing/ And this one’s for fun/ And this one’s about rock n’ roll and comic books and bubble gum” aren’t set in place yet), the entire second verse is locked down tight and illustrates that Hugh Dillon was already on his game – some of his ideas just needed a bit more time to season. Closer to the finished specimens are “Won’t Wait Again,” “Cut” and “Three Angels,” which are all just on the cusp of being in the shape which fans would recognize and revere in two short years’ time.

The strength of those songs is exciting – and even more so with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of what would come next for the band – but equally exciting are the roaring and raucous takes of “Gun,” “Road Pops” (also known as “Crash and Burn”), “Skin Me Alive” and “Love, Hate and Indifference.” On those songs which were ultimately left behind, listeners are afforded a glimpse of some pretty solid and dark punk rock specimens which could easily have fit into the running of any one of the Headstones’ albums; that they were ultimately left off is unfortunate, but understandable given that the band was writing pretty prolifically at the time (and would get better as they grew more confident in what they were doing).

Picture Of Health
(MCA, 1993; Avalanche, 1994; Universal Music, 2000)
It doesn’t get talked about much in any music history book, but 1993 was a very important year for Canadian rock n’ roll. In that year, a tremendous number of bands who would end up helping to establish Canadian rock on radio playlists and music magazine charts (both foreign and domestic) released landmark albums: I Mother Earth released Dig, The Tea Party unveiled Splendour Solis, Eric’s Trip put out Love Tara, The Odds put out Bedbugs, Junkhouse released Strays and Propagandhi put out How To Clean Everything.While Barenaked Ladies and The Tragically Hip arrived a little ahead of the curve (BnL’s breakthrough came with the release of Gordon in 1992, and the Hip were already three celebrated albums into what would be their decade-long dynasty), 1993 was the year that a new breed of Canadian artists broke through a lot of barriers (in print, on radio, and on stage) and, without question, one of the most decisive blows was struck by Headstones’ major label debut, Picture Of Health.

In retrospect, Picture Of Health was truly a juggernaut among the wild bunch of Canadian rock albums which crashed media gates in 1993, because the album did so solely by word of mouth on the strength of the performances both on the record and on stage. The proof of that grassroots-level success comes from the fact that the album did not chart anywhere, but did sell platinum-certified numbers. That is just incredible, no matter how you slice it.

While Picture Of Health‘s sales were certainly impressive, equally incredible is the fact that it still grabs attention with the raw urgency and power of the music – which remains undiminished regardless of how much time may have passed since the album’s release. Even now, decades after the Headstones smashed listeners over the head with Picture Of Health, the spirit of it still rings out; it’s hard, fast and infectious rock n’ roll with attitude to spare. And even when it takes a minute to bare its soul, it still retains those qualities.

The Headstones sound their charge right from the top with “It’s All Over” and set the image of who they are as a band in the minds of listeners right away. There, guitarist Trent Carr, bassist Tim White and drummer Mark Gibson lay down an angry and swaggering punk-meets-rock rhythm which is both perfectly accessible and pissed off at the same time.

For the right kind of mind, that sound is perfectly engaging – but it’s singer Hugh Dillon who hooks listeners and has them along for the ride with the words, “Over the moon/ And Over the top/ And over the people – yeah/ Who told you to stop.”

That introduction is bold, defiant, insolent and perfect; it spells out who the Headstones are definitively and in no uncertain terms, and reads like a banner that any overlooked problem child would be happy to march behind. The spell cast by that rough and tumble intro gets more attractive as the band carouses its way around more desperately dangerous loner imagery (“Walking hand-in-hand/ With my addiction/Make it twist and turn/ But I ain’t built to burn/You think I’m swingin’/ But then I kick”) and never once lets listeners take a breath because the sound is just so raucous, urgent and hard.

That’s awesome – and it’s just track one.

From there, the Headstones spend the rest of Picture Of Health fleshing out who they are for listeners. Here, darkness and anger in the band gets laid on display with no punches pulled, but the intelligence and humor in the band gets exposed as a fantastic counterpoint to it. In “Heart Of Darkness” for example, the darkness and anger in the band’s collective persona gets spewed out right off in Trent Carr’s yowling, bluesy guitar tone but is tempered and made unavoidable by Dillon’s constantly aggressive and self-critical lyric sheets (scan “Sometimes I look around and I just can’t believe/ What a stinkin’ horrible motherfuckin’ web I weave around myself/ I look to my friends/ Seduced by the bottle and the warmth of a syringe”). That temperance is countered in turn by an incredibly infectious and fist-pumping rock rhythm.

Conversely, “When Something Stands For Nothing” – which very plainly states, “And this one’s for nothin’/ And this one’s for fun/ And this one’s about rock n’ roll and comic books and bubble gum” lightens everything right up without actually changing many of the instrumental timbres.

Between those two ends, the Headstones strike a balance that the alone inhabit; their rock is as serious or as fun as they want it to be, and the best moments come when the wires cross (check out the raving and dangerous meltdown “Oh My God” – which begins with the words “Oh my god, I’m gonna die!” and ends with “Oh my god, I’m gonna live” – “Losing Control” and “Cemetery”) and listeners get assaulted by a bit of both at the same time. Granted, the band does show that they’re still a little green in places (someone in the band must have thought the “God loves me/ God loves you/ Satan, god loved Hitler man/ an’ them six million Jews” line in “Heart Of Darkness” was a good idea, but it’s pretty sophomoric and reads like it was ripped right out of someone’s high school poetry scribbler) but the passion and the power which dominates these songs ends up being the thing which sticks best in listeners’ minds.

It’s that passion and power that will keep listeners coming back. And the no-nonsense structures on which the songs are built (as well as the production they feature) maintains a fresh sound, even twenty years after the fact. It might seem strange to try and contend that a bunch of songs about necrophilia, addiction and insanity are able to sound timeless, but they do in the Headstones’ hands.

The band sets itself even further apart from the pack by making it all work on their first album FOR A MAJOR LABEL. That is, simply put, unbelievable. With Picture Of Health, the Headstones set the bar incredibly high both for themselves and for all the bands who were coming up at the same time they were; all they’d have to do next is come close and they’d be alright.

Teeth & Tissue
(MCA, 1995)
After the release of Picture Of Health. It really didn’t take long for the Headstones to climb to the highest peak of the Canadian rock pile. The album was picked up by an independent label in the U.S. (Avalanche Records) in 1994, and business really started picking up as the album ultimately yielded five singles, helping to power a succession of Canadian tours (as well as a few introductory trips to the United States). Nothing – not even the departure of drummer Mark Gibson – seemed to slow the Headstones down; drummer Dale Harrison joined the band to complete their final lineup in 1994 and the band just seemed to keep getting bigger and better.

The culmination of all the Headstones early successes can be heard very clearly on their sophomore album, Teeth and Tissue, but the best part is that there is no waiting for the band to get limbered up before delivering a second helping of goodness; they’re just ready to go. The Headstones are already running hot from the moment Teeth and Tissue opens and the band only cools off once halfway through the record’s running when they take a minute to laugh at death with a bit of gallows humor.

Listeners already familiar with the Headstones’ brand of rock-punk crunch won’t be able to keep the little hairs on the backs of their necks from standing at attention the moment they’re hit with the seven seconds of feedback which open “Hindsight.” The build is poetic; after “Cemetery” crash landed to close Picture Of Health, “Hindsight” feels like it hasn’t quite left that moment yet in spite of T&T coming two years later, and even goes so far as to curse, “To me what good is hindsight/ It’s still stingin’.” If ever a lyric read that business was the same as it ever was, it would be that.

Except everything isn’t the same for the Headstones on Teeth & Tissue. True, themes of violence, addiction, hard feelings and dangerously intelligent self-criticism continue to run through these thirteen songs as they did on Picture Of Health, but Teeth & Tissue seems to ring with experience where their prior album felt more fantastical. In “Cemetery,” for example, Hugh Dillon seemed to laugh brashly in the face of death but, on Teeth & Tissue’s title track, the singer takes a decidedly darker and more solemn look at similar subject matter. Lyrics like, “It’s so hard, so hard to be cautious/ When you swim this close to the bottom/ All we collect is ourselves and abuse” show a decidedly different songwriting mindset. Were such images the standard on Teeth & Tissue, it would be easy to assume that the Headstones had taken a vicious and ugly wrong turn during the songwriting process for this album – but happily, they aren’t the norm. Rather, Hugh Dillon has grown by leaps and bounds lyrically as he incorporates images which aren’t necessarily autobiographical.

On “Burning” (where the song’s subject tells Dillon she loves him but then dreams of death after he tells her that nothing lasts forever). “Dripping Dime Size Drops” sees time just fade away under the strain of withdrawal symptoms. Then there’s “Hearts, Love and Honour” which, with lines like “There ain’t no time for hearts, love and honor/ That ship left and I wasn’t on ‘er/ And now I smile, I wave from the docks/ ‘Cause we both know we sunk that ship with rocks” might just mark it as one of the best, most bitter love-lost songs in music history. Finally, “One More Time”, Dillon asks the question of theological belief in the most condemning way possible: “Do you believe in God and green Lifesavers?”

Instrumentally, Teeth & Tissue is characterized by some impressive growth in performance as well. Newcomer Dale Harrison is a far harder-hitting and faster drummer than Mark Gibson was on his best day and that really helps songs like “Say Goodbye,” “Million Days In May” and “Let It Go” punch through harder, while Trent Carr (guitar) and Tim White (bass) extend themselves beyond the punk and rock rhythm paradigms and include monster-sized and memorable riffs. Hugh Dillon’s lyric sheets have grown clearly grown more witty and aggressive here, but don’t fall back on cliche as they spit in listeners’ collective face.

All these elements combined amount to an album which not only answers the success of Picture Of Health, it expresses growth beyond that beginning as well as leaving the possibility open for further development. Simply said, Teeth & Tissue is a great record which proves that the Headstones have bigger chops and more promise than the band showed on Picture Of Health. It also leaves listeners wanting more and wondering what might come next.

Smile & Wave
(Universal Music, 1996)
In the three years (JUST three years!) since Picture Of Health had come out, the Headstones had punched out an impressive name for themselves both on Canadian concert stages and record store shelves. The band had established itself as a force of nature; they’d proven that their records were only the tip of the iceberg as far as how infectious their songs could be. Songs like “Oh My God” and “Unsound” had regularly become fantastic stage spectacles which would often transform into high octane jams, including twisted bits of covers ranging from The Guess Who to Sheryl Crow and beyond. That was all cool and good, but more promising was the fact that interest in the band’s albums was not waning.

All of those things were very, very good news for the Headstones, but the band was beginning to diversify – filmmaker Bruce McDonald had been won over by Hugh Dillon’s presence onstage and cast him in his 1994 film Dance Me Outside. He then really surprised critics when by casting the singer in the lead role of his rock n’ roll mock-umentary Hard Core Logo [which would end up being the springboard for the singer’s entire film career – photos of Dillon with actor Callum Keith Rennie appear in the photo collage inside the cover of Smile & Wave –ed], and both Tim White and Trent Carr were beginning to try their hands at production work.

With all the activity going on, to say things were looking good for both Headstones (both collectively and individually) was something of an understatement. But what the band did next was simply incredible. The band took all of the passion, power, anger and beauty that they had used to win fans on Picture Of Health and Teeth & Tissue, re-focused it and tightened it down further than ever before (and, let’s face it, it was far from loose) and launched a perfect rock record called Smile & Wave.

Smile & Wave is the Headstones’ classic, definitive album – encompassing all that the band was capable of at their best in their fans’ eyes. It is angry and it is dangerous. It is funny and it is introspective. Most importantly, it is all of those things while simultaneously rocking like a fuckin’ beast.

Smile & Wave doesn’t exactly seem to hit the ground running so much as just already be in progress as “Reno” opens it up, which basically leaves LISTENERS running to catch up. There, it’s hard to tell if Hugh Dillon is commenting on all the new fans which were crowding the Headstones’ venues (lines like “Comin’ back to me/ They swear to God I am a savage/ I don’t like the faces well/ I’m certain now you’re clear/ They begin to stop me/ You won’t like it when I stare” certainly angle in that direction) or on himself (see “Me I got a million lies/ An eye ain’t even battin’”), but the raucous energy of the song totally overshadows any possible undercurrent that might be present. The simple, three-note bass riff combined with Dale Harrison’s concussive drums and Dillon’s lean, mean streetwise character will have those who hear the song sneering along immediately, even if they’re all (to paraphrase Dillon’s lyric sheet) headed down the drain. Here, it may well be that the Headstones are walking along a razor’s edge; one which might see the song fall apart at any second, but it’s a line which looks both dangerous and fun to walk.

Following the band down this path does prove to be fun indeed as Smile & Wave continues. Unlike so many other similarly bent albums released around the same time (like Filth Pig by Ministry, Murder Ballads by Nick Cave, Bad Religion’s Grey Race and Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire), the Headstones wisely balance the dark and dangerous side of their sonic personality with the light and funny one so that most of them make listeners see all the fun one can have with a bad attitude. Songs like “Picture Frame Of Rage” (lyrics like “Humiliation is a picture and it’s painful but it fades/ Cruelty is so vivid it’s a picture frame of rage/ Pictures in a yearbook/ Pictures with your friends/ Pictures in the paper with your dates and where you’ve been” pretty much sum it up), “Pretty Little Death Song” (which sees Dillon self-reflexively barking the words “Necrophilia, Addiction and Insanity” in performance, but listing “Cemetery,” “Heart Of Darkness” Unsound” in the lyrics printed on the liner notes) and “Physics” (which might rank as the closest to a morality treatise in the Headstones’ songbook with lyrics like “Calculate the damage/ Divvy up my dirty share/ Take away the promises/ And the complicated stares” attest) all present the Headstones as the best backhanded party band ever created – bouncing back and forth between skin-peeling, speedy punk rock greatness and classic rock bombast.

With such perfect, hook-heavy and ravingly accessible songs as those listed above, it’s easy for listeners to get swept up in the whole thing and want to join the circus with the band as they go – but it’s not the only side to Smile & Wave. The band proves they can shift gears smoothly and memorably as thy pick up a drum loop and an acoustic guitar for a bit of dry-eyed introspection on “Cubically Contained” [which proved to be the runaway hit single for the album –ed], turn a fluffy album cut into a live-wire rocker with the help of a saxophone on “Supersmart” and even get a little bit country-identified on “Without A Sound” – all without breaking a sweat or losing any steam. It turns out to be an experience that one has to hear to believe; as adventurous as they get, the band never loses its uniquely “Headstones” personality, they just prove to be THAT damned good as they pull off every risk. In that way, Smile & Wave proves to be the Headstones’ first classic album; prior to this point, they’d been good and getting incrementally better, but with Smile & Wave they set a standard they’d always have to live up to.

Nickels For Your Nightmares
(Universal Music, 2000)
After the release of Smile & Wave, the only way to accurately qualify the changes which occurred for the Headstones was to say that everything changed. The combined success of Picture Of Health, Teeth & Tissue and Smile & Wave made the Headstones one of the most popular bands in Canada. To accommodate that, the size of the venues that the band had been playing in was no longer appropriate (more people wanted to see the band so the rooms had to get bigger), and the length of the tours that the band was doing got longer. Media appearances (both in print and on television) increased and, because more money was going into the band, more money was expected out of it.

The stress and strain of such a situation was incredible – and it started to show on the band members. Drug and alcohol abuse were no longer just a set of subjects to write songs about, they were vices which were not always under the best control for the band’s members. In fact, for some of Headstones’ bandmembers, getting onto and falling off of the wagon was becoming as common an activity as getting on a TTC streetcar or subway train. It was a very tenuous and difficult situation and it, combined with the tremendous number of hours spent on a bus or in a tour van had to have been exhausting; that it suddenly took four years to make Nickels For Your Nightmares is totally understandable. Equally understandable is how, while the Headstones were still at their creative peak with Smile & Wave, there was no way to hide the frayed edges on the songs and the band members’ performances on Nickels For Your Nightmares. For their fourth major label album, the band’s spirits may have been willing, but physical limitations definitely play a role.

Whether one wanted to characterize NFYN‘s starting point as a little muddy or static is irrelevant; both terms apply to “Downtown,” and even the biggest fans in the Headstones’ camp are unlikely to deny it. The fact that the guitars sound a little laden and muddy is perfectly obvious when producer Paul Northfield turns a phase shifter effect loose on Trent Carr’s guitar half way through each of the song’s choruses (they just sound a little punch drunk when that effect kicks in) and, to make matters worse, Hugh Dillon sounds like he cut his vocal take the morning after a long, hard night at the Black Bull on Queen Street – rough and out of shape and more than a little strained.

“Downtown” might not be the strongest start for Nickels For Your Nightmares, but Headstones rebound fantastically with the second track on the album, “Pinned You Down,” and ensures that fans will be locked in and confident that the band isn’t long gone out of fighting form. There, Trent Carr’s speedy guitar work combines with Dale Harrison’s pummelling punk drums, and Dillon regains his confrontational posture as he starts spitting every other lyric in the song’s run-time like they’re fightin’ words.

“Pinned You Down” is Headstones as fans know and love them, and it would be easy enough to forget about “Downtown” or call it a false start – had the band not fallen backward into another dud called “Settle,” which suffers from a bad case of too much production and not enough power.

After the album bounces back and forth from dud-to-stud-to-dud and then breaks a bad cycle with a series of feebs (listeners are welcome to find “Exhausted,” “Blonde and Blue” and the aptly-entitled “Pathetic Pair” for information on how weak a Headstones song can be), even the most rabid fans will find themselves wondering what happened to the Headstones and if there’s any hope at all that the band will be able to salvage the remainder of this record; the the band is clearly on the ropes. A few tracks – “Firing Pin,” “Fuck You” and “Mystery To Me” – do see the band bounce back and blast out some high-octane rock-punk, but they end up seeming abandoned as the Headstones trip and fall with more mid-tempo badness like “My Perspective Fades” (which is about as ‘college rock’ as the title implies) “Ultra-Honesty” (which is blessedly forgettable) and “Little Lies” (which sounds like it should be a Tragically Hip song – except it’s not performed very well). Listeners will find they’ve got a well and truly sour taste left in their mouths already by the time the title track meanders in – sounding like a very whiskey-soaked Leonard Cohen cast-off – and will find they’re feeling pretty good about the fact that this exercise is over when it does finally end.

To this day (some thirteen years after the original release of the album),  Nickels For Your Nightmares remains a very, very challenging record. There are moments of promise in it, but not enough. It’s a heartbreaker really, because there are moments in this running where it’s possible to see where the band was trying to go (judging by “Pinned You Down,” “Firing Pin,” “Fuck You,” “Mystery To Me” and the sort of campy, sweet/silly break which is “Above Ground Swimming Pools,” they might have been trying to recreate the power of Teeth & Tissue at one point), and listeners will find themselves cursing because there’s just no way to excuse how short they come up on their goal.

The Greatest Fits
(Universal Music, 2001)
After Nickels For Your Nightmares appeared (while the album wasn’t received poorly per se, but it proved not to have the staying power that its predecessors did with radio), it only made sense that the Headstones stop and regroup. The pause made sense; the band had been working hard and, while in their holding pattern, the band took stock of what they’d done in their career together to that point and released The Greatest Fits – a compilation which pulls together the Headstones’ highest charting singles released between 1993 and 2000, with a couple of unreleased tracks thrown in for good measure.

Taken as a whole, it’s obvious that the Headstones already knew what they were doing when it came time to assemble a smooth-playing greatest hits set; it can’t be an accident that Greatest Fits plays a lot like the best live set fans have ever heard. Here, a familiar flow emerges as the momentum builds through “Smile & Wave,” “Cubically Contained” and “Unsound” before it breaks for a breather with “Three Angels” and “Settle.” In that progression, listeners get the lion’s share of what the Headstones have always been all about: passion, power and punk rock are front-loaded and what listeners are hit with first, then the poetry and delicacy follows. The progression feels great through that series of songs, but it remains satisfying when the band starts a similar cycle with “Tweeter And The Monkey Man,” “When Something Stands For Nothing,” “And” and “It’s All Over” – fans who know the songs will find themselves humming along quietly, and those who are hearing this music for the first time will already be tweaked to hear more.

After “Cemetery” rattles through to close out the proceedings, those who have gone through the record from front to back will feel good and energized and want to hear more. That’s likely the whole idea of this set; after blasting through Greatest Fits, new listeners won’t be able to stop themselves from wanting to hunt down the rest of the Headstones’ albums and see when the band is playing through their town next. In a word, The Greatest Fits will have them hooked.

The Oracle Of Hi-Fi
(MapleMusic, 2002)
While it might have seemed as though the Headstones had gotten their act together and returned to their old working methods when their fifth album, The Oracle Of Hi-Fi, came out (about eighteen months after The Greatest Fits). One listen to the album, however, proved that was not the case. In fact, The Oracle Of Hi-Fi proves that the wheels had completely fallen off the band; the album was promoted as being a back-to-basics offering after the comparative indulgence of Nickels For Your Nightmares and, while the effort does certainly seem to be there on the record, the songs just aren’t up to snuff. The combination of lackluster production and weak songs makes for a poor listen overall.

To be fair, that the songs on The Oracle Of Hi-Fi don’t hold up isn’t readily apparent right away. The album seems to start strong with a bit of rabble-rousing, barroom rock fury in the form of “Whatchagonnado” to get fans waiting for a glowing return worked up. On this song, Tim White’s bass is uncharacteristically calm and just follows the rhythm guitar while Trent Carr exercises his fret hand for a bit of Dropkick Murphys-esque Celt-punk and Hugh Dillon just fumes about the demise of a relationship (“Whatchagonnado now that she’s gone? Gonna drink, fuck, party, fight all night long!”). The result is fun, fluffy and forgettable by Headstones standards, but it gets fans’ appetites whetted for another round of hard-living good times with the band.

Unfortunately, the good times don’t roll far on Oracle Of Hi-Fi after “Whatchagonnado?” gets listeners going. “Reframed” follows up with some fine anger at a walking pace which feels a little tepid by the standards set with Picture Of Health, Teeth & Tissue and Smile & Wave.

The problem with Hi-Fi is simple: after “Reframed” blasts out some vitriol which is just acerbic enough to singe the skin of listeners, every other song on the record feels competently phoned in or put on. “Take It,” for example, feels like the stripped down and punky song which fell off of Picture Of Health because it just wasn’t coming together, but was re-purposed for Hi-Fi because the band still believed in the song. That would be fine, but the problem is that it still doesn’t feel right or fully formed here. Conversely, “Tiny Teddy” just feels forced and contrived and “Coffee Cup” ends up feeling about as boring as its title implies. Those are bad, but worst of all is “And It Goes.” The song just feels like the Headstones wrote the vocal hook from “Judy” into another song, Our Lady Peace-style [see that band’s penchant for using themes which revolve around the words, “Are you okay?” and “Is anybody home?” –ed], but neglected to put anything else in it (no anger, no power, no soul) to help it register in this run-time; it just sits, still-born. By the time the band walks down “Devil’s Road” and ends up emerging from it about as clean and unaffected as they looked walking in, listeners will only be too happy to put The Oracle Of Hi-Fi to rest. On this album, not only did the band lose its way, it lost its teeth too.

After The Oracle Of Hi-Fi was released on June 14, 2002, the Headstones hit the road to start promoting it – as was their custom. Apparently not everything was “everything as usual” though; according to Hugh Dillon [the singer told Jian Ghomeshi the circumstances on Q TV years later –ed], Oracle had been the singer’s first attempt at making an album clean and sober but touring knocked him off the wagon again and put everything within the band right back to square one. It was at that point when they took a hard look at themselves and the world around them; nothing was sitting as they had expected when they started the Headstones in 1987. Certainly not as well as it had been when the band was riding high in 1996. Because of that – and with substance abuse now very, very much a concern – it seemed like a good time for the band to hang up its proverbial spurs. It sounds anticlimactic phrased that way because it was; the Headstones had been great but they had lost something and so, with heads hanging, they called it a day. There were no hard feelings or explosive events which sounded the death knell for the band, they just collapsed. Rather than going out with a bang as most fans just always assumed they would, the Headstones went out with a whimper.

(free internet download, 2011)
…And then, nine years after what everyone thought was the band’s last convulsion, the Headstones reappeared. To say that no one saw the band coming (back) is an understatement; the last time anyone heard from the the Headstones – on 2002’s The Oracle Of Hi-Fi LP – the wear was showing noticeably on the group as they took lighter strokes more reminiscent of Teenage Head than the tales of hard luck and hard feelings that fans had come to crave and were exemplified by songs like “Unsound,” “Fuck You,” “Smile And Wave” and “Hearts, Love And Honour.” It was a little bittersweet and, not too long after that record was released, the group announced that they were taking a break and the members immediately went their separate ways; singer Hugh Dillon pursued his acting career and released a couple of solo albums (which possessed a fraction of the fire The Headstones had), guitarist Trent Carr and bassist Tim White founded a production company and drummer Dale Harrison found work both as a musician (drumming for Teenage Head and Alannah Myles) and as an actor (appearing on Degrassi and Instant Star). While no one could fault the band members for wanting to pursue their “outside projects,” even the most hopeful, diehard fans started to wonder if this “hiatus” wasn’t more like a “permanent vacation” as months became years of inactivity.

Then it happened. In early 2011, it was announced that The Headstones were reconvening for a four-date mini-tour of Southern Ontario. Those four shows proved that the band hadn’t lost a step in their downtime and, while Dillon may have shaved his head smooth, all the spikes which had originally hooked fans were still there in the music and performances. None of the excitement faded, and the shows were tremendously received. After that, a short note went up on the band’s website saying that The Headstones were in the studio recording for the first time in almost a decade. What came from those sessions was one song called “Binthiswayforyears,” which the group released as a free download from their website on August 15, 2011.

Without indulging too much in rhetoric, the excitement and curiosity that the announcement of a new Headstones song generated was well-rewarded. From the moment Tim White’s bass line begins growling a nihilistic, two-note notice, fans who have waited so patiently for the band to finally break the silence will begin to feel a familiar tingle and the itch to misbehave again. That sensation builds and when Hugh Dillon grabs the mic and almost curses the words “I’ve been burned out, I’ve been hated/I’ve been fucked up and unsophisticated/A little foolish, a little jaded/I ain’t complainin’ the karma’s been backdated,” in that familiar tone which is equal parts spit and sore feelings, fans know this is the real deal. The Headstones have returned.

Now, saying that everything about “Binthiswayforyears” is the same as it ever was might sound a little cliche, but it’s hard not to feel that way for the entire two minutes and ten seconds of the song’s run-time. Standing in contrast to the rock solid and grounded rhythm of Dale Harrison’s drums and White’s bass, Trent Carr’s guitar sounds like it may careen off the rails at any moment as its squalling tones seem to teeter on the edge of a knife through the verses before slamming right into formation for the choruses. Dillon’s voice wields the same seething passion it did when the band was living the high life, leaving listeners to believe that any lightening up he may have done solo wasn’t a bi-product of cleaning up so much as it was a role he simply wanted to see if he could play. Through those two solo albums, the singer showed listeners he could play nice but, on “Binthiswayforyears,” he shows his true colors and proves that he still owns them. The results are a song that is as caustic and antagonistic (but still with that hair of gallows humor which has always been the band’s ace in the hole) as any of the best moments from The Headstones’ first four records. In fact, “Binthiswayforyears” implies that the band members’ aggression may have been compounded with the years of inactivity, if anything.

So what does this one song mean for The Headstones? After so many years away, the verdict is still out whether or not another full-length album might be in the band’s future, but “Binthiswayforyears” renews the hope of such a possibility with ease. This song has the vengeance, now all the band has to do is record a few more to justify adding the words “back with a.”

Love + Fury
(Frostbyte/Universal Music, 2013)
While Love + Fury certainly compares to the Headstones’ first three albums in quality of craft and style (the songs are wound tight and played lean with none of the shortcomings which dogged Nickels For Your Nightmares or The Oracle Of Hi-Fi), the Headstones wisely don’t try to present this music like no time has passed since “the good ol’ days.” In fact, Hugh Dillon makes a special point of noting that time has passed and the band has survived right away at the top of “Change My Ways.” There, Dillon lays it on the line right off the bat as he spits acerbic come-ons (check out lines like “I’ll give it to you straight/ Or I can dress it up nice/ It’s the fight in the dog/ Not the dog in the fight/ Understand I’ll be damned if you think I’m-a change my ways”) over a taut and lean guitar line supplied by Trent Carr and a fantastic rhythmic punch from bassist Tim White and drummer Dale Harrison. Fans who remember how it felt when they first heard Picture Of Health will recognize the vibe of “Change My Ways,” and it doesn’t feel ‘put on’ at all. After over a decade of inactivity, it feels like the Headstones have come back to center and discovered that music like this is still in them to present, untarnished and undiminished.

Fans will find themselves tingling in perfect fits of ecstasy as the Headstones just keep unloading hit after hit on them throughout Love + Fury‘s run-time. Songs like “Longwaytoneverland,” “Far Away From Here,” “Go Back The Other Way” and “Outta My League” all ring like the second coming of the band who made Picture Of Health twenty years ago – now back hale, hearty and hungry. That’s instantly engaging, but the Headstones take it one step further by including some movements similar to those they made on Picture Of Health, just to prove they’re in fighting shape. In this case, the band swaps their cover of The Travelling Wilburys’ “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” for a more aggressive (and surprising) cover of Abba’s “SOS” as well as trading “Cemetery” (a.k.a. One of the oldest songs in the Headstones’ canon – having first appeared on the Demo Gods cassette they sold off the stage at concerts before getting signed) for “Don’t Follow The Leader” (which appeared on the same cassette but didn’t go widely released before now). The result is a really, really cool experience; while some critics may scoff at the attempts other bands have made to restart their creative engines, Love + Fury stands apart in that it offers a completely gratifying experience. That’s impressive, but even more so is the fact that, Love + Fury holds the distinction of being a true event; Love + Fury is a strong return to get genuinely excited about.

One In The Chamber Music
Listening to Headstones’ new acoustic album, One In The Chamber Music, it’s hard not to draw parallels between it and Hard Core Logo. I’m not talking about the feature film which starred Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie, I’m referring to the book by Michael Turner upon which the movie was based; it was much different.The book’s plot revolves around Hard Core Logo hitting the road for a short tour but, rather than going all-out and damning the torpedoes, the band elects to do an acoustic tour – in part for the economy and in part to keep what’s left of their hearing (as singer/guitarist Joe Dick says in the book, “All those years cranked at ten, I can’t even hear the doorbell anymore.”) as well as taking one last shot at breaking through.

Of course, Headstones have broken through – there’s no worry about that, but the desire to trying something a little different is valid. Like Hard Core Logo, Headstones have also been cranked to ten for a long time, and the desire to turn down and really showcase how good they are as players and performers may indeed be genuine. That’s the logic THIS fan held walking into One In The Chamber Music, and I was surprised to find that Headstones aren’t just capable of turning down, they make the act an experience all unto itself on One In The Chamber.

The desire to make sure that One In The Chamber isn’t going to immediately be judged by the same merits as albums like Picture Of Health and Smile and Wave is clear as the Headstones open with one of the two new songs on the album, “Colourless.” There, the band goes out of its way to (at least initially) present their acoustic urge with a clean slate, and it works very, very well; Hugh Dillon’s vocal approach really doesn’t change much (he’s not singing as hard, but that’s about it), Tim White’s stand-up bass playing fills the space his normally busy style occupies in such a way that it isn’t really missed, while Dale Harrison handily lightens his attack on the drums with the help of some brushes over sticks and Trent Carr transfers his guitar chops over to mandolin for a much more delicate performance. In print, all that might sound about as far from the norm in the Headstones’ songbook as it’s possible to get but, in listening, “Colourless” sounds like a campfire rendition of a Headstones barnburner; the energy’s there, just not the hydro electricity.

After a moment of “new” to get fans on-board with the idea of “Headstones lite,” the band digs into their catalogue and pulls out some great, “all-wood” performances for fans to absorb. Fans will love the re-imaginings of songs like “Smile And Wave” (which, again, makes great use of a mandolin for the post-chorus breakdown), a lugubrious run-through of “Tweeter and The Monkey Man” and a playful rendition of “Cemetery” (which really plays close to Joe Dick’s idea of how HIS band’s performances should go in Hard Core Logo) and be satisfied to see that those performances stand well with the new renditions of already-acoustic songs like “Swinging” and “Three Angels.” It does need to be conceded that not every song is perfect here (the vocal in “Won’t Wait Again” seems to stand as too loud in the mix and “Look Away” remains the closest-to-throwaway song in the band’s songbook). But the few weak moments which do exist are easy to forget when stacked with the really good and energetic renditions of the other songs on the album.

With all that glowing praise now on the record, this writer has to ask readers who is surprised that the Headstones were able to make an album like this. The band has proven that they can pick up acoustic guitars and play songwriterly cards before, so who really thought this wouldn’t work? Well, the truth is that maybe no one thought the Headstones couldn’t make an album like One In The Chamber Music, but that doesn’t mean the Headstones still didn’t need to prove it to themselves; many punk bands (including Billy Tallent – in Hard Core Logo, the novel) have maintained that part of what makes their music what it is is the volume at which they make it – turning down the volume would also lower the power, passion and quality of it. Such statements are among those that the Headstones totally disprove here; on One In The Chamber Music, they illustrate that their craft is the back on which their songs ride so well, not the superficial trappings included.


Comments are closed.