The Lowest Of The Low – [CD/DVD]

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Trying to measure the influence of The Lowest Of The Low and their debut album, Shakespeare My Butt, on modern rock is impossible. That isn't any kind of overstatement – when the album dropped in 1991, an entire generation of Canadians (and those Americans living close enough to the border that they picked up Canadian radio stations) heard it because the album managed to penetrate several schools of sensibility at once; for some, the band's smart-assed (and shockingly literate), punk flavored attack on roots rock was the perfect bridge between college rock, the alt-country that bands like 54-40 and Blue Rodeo were making at the time and the poppy mainstream. For some other listeners, Shakespeare My Butt represented a uniquely “Canadian” interpretation of alt-rock and underground values (which hadn't quite reset the values of mainstream modern rock radio yet, but that shift was coming) which proved the sound was spreading beyond city centers like Portland, Seattle, New York and Chicago. Finally, for Canadians, The Low represented a shift away from the practice of simply producing blanched copies of American rock bands; unlike acts including Corey Hart, Loverboy, Tom Cochrane, Honeymoon Suite and Glass Tiger (who had all found success in the Eighties by simply mimicking music that was getting a lot of play on American radio airwaves), the images and references in Low songs represented a homegrown and uniquely Canadian approach to rock which would later be used by many other acts acts. The foothold that The Lowest Of The Low willed into being made it possible for Canadian bands (like The Headstones, Sloan, The Odds, The Killjoys, The Tragically Hip and Junkhouse at the time and, later, Broken Social Scene and the other acts signed to Arts & Crafts – and more) to aspire to mainstream success. Because of that, The Lowest Of The Low would eventually become legends (no small feat for a band that was originally only active from 1991 to 1994) and were met by staggering excitement and anticipation when they returned to active recording and touring duty in 2000.

How did The Lowest Of The Low inspire such a dedicated following after such a brief initial period of activity? It may have only come naturally, but more likely was the fact that an enormous group of listeners were all able to catch onto the music at the same time. From the very beginning, the band was able to build a solid connection between several rock sub-genres and incorporate them all into their sound without it seeming to take any effort to do so – it couldn't have, because they were doing it from the very beginning; on Shakespeare My Butt, it's possible to pick out flecks of punk, alt-country, Maritime folk and rock in each and every song. That's really remarkable, but even more so is the fact those no one generic sound takes the definitive lead, they all work in unison.

That The Lowest Of The Low were able to combine rock, punk and country into one stable, alternative union is perfectly evident from the descending lick that opens “4 O'Clock Stop.” In that song, the interplay Ron Hawkins' dry but frustrated vocals and the jangling “R.E.M. of the backwoods” rock supporting him builds tension before the pop in the chorus slams the whole conglomeration hard into the pleasure center of a listener's brain. In this case, the cynicism of the lyric sheet somehow manages to function as a sublime pop hook which will leave listeners half-smiling happily and half-sneering in punk rebellion – it's beautiful. From there, the band plays much the same game through “Salesmen, Cheats And Liars,” “Eternal Fatalist,” “Subversives” and “Henry Needs A New Pair Of Shoes” but ups the stakes with each successive track by offering ever-stronger images in the lyrical barbs laced throughout the album, and also cutting the bravado occasionally with some knee-weakening indie romance (like in “Bleed A Little While Tonight” and “The Hand Of Magdalena”) just to make sure everyone is along for the ride.The balance between those two emotional poles is set by the fact that, no matter where a given song starts, there is always the possibility of the vibe swinging against it; for example, the lyric sheet of “Eternal Fatalist” sits at perfect odds with the music, but that's part of what makes the song work so well. The rushed, nervous tempo threatens so swallow the imagery and sentiment of the song whole, but check out lyrics like:

“She felt someone else upon your lips
You've blown another relationship
You say that God had a hand in this
I say you should've stayed away from that other girl

Now, I look at you
And you look at me
Ah, life's a bitch for the eternal fatalist

You say it's all lined up like shot glasses on the bar of life
You'll sip your way through it
You never once got stiffed
So pick yourself up, pay your tab, and get on with your life
Get on with it!”

Conversely, the heart-on-its' sleeve sentiment of the lyrics  in “Bleed A Little While Tonight” perfectly align with the emotional center of the song to push it into the realm of one of the best love songs in creation for those who have heard it. The interplay between the parts is almost comical and heart-warming in a Replacements sort of way, and it is impossible to ignore; even right out of the gate, The Low play to cynicism brilliantly, but leave enough of a lift in that veneer to let listeners find the heart of each song, and inhabit it. Even now, there aren't many listeners who won't take that opportunity.

Twenty years later, and the stories of both The Lowest Of The Low and Shakespeare My Butt have been told – repeatedly. Shakespeare My Butt would go on to captivate hearts completely (more than the band's follow-up, Hallucigenia did, but the band was already coming undone by then) and, between '91 and '94, there wasn't much else to go on. The band returned for twice as long a period in 2000 and the new material that came of the reunion wasn't bad, but nothing had the enduring appeal of Shakespeare My Butt. With that history in mind, it begs the question of what they bans itself thinks of the great album it left behind.

The DVD portion of the reissue sort of answers that question, in a roundabout way. Without the benefit of a whole lot of actual interview footage (the audio comes courtesy of a CBC interview done with guitarist Stephen Stanley and singer Ron Hawkins), the live and incidental footage included really does just seem appropriate in structure for the band and does capture the heart of The Lowest Of The Low and their “no muss, no fuss, just capture it raw” attitude. In listening to the interview, there's no doubt that the band still supports the material and respects what some people regard as the impact it had but, a lot of what's said still has an element of dubious disbelief in it; it's almost as if the band appreciates that people (fans – the band's record label back then was tedious, and one can hear Stanley and Hawkins betray that without saying so in the interview) got behind them from day one, but don't exactly understand why; in true punk fashion, the idea that anything they did twenty years ago should have held up to the present is almost laughable to them, and they'd just as soon move forward. That sentiment, combined with the remastered take on Shakespeare My Butt, is the beautiful thing about this reissue reissue; the music is genius and pure – whether the band knew it or knew why or not.



The 20th Anniversary Edition of Shakespeare My Butt is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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