His imagery is odd, grotesque, bizarre, dark, and ugly. He also has a knack for a sly lyric.
On Geoff Berner’s new album, Canadiana Grotesquica, there is a song about vocalists from the Great White North who adopt an inauthentic country twang when singing.
The Vancouver singer/songwriter calls this habit, and the song, Phoney Drawl. Taking on his own exaggerated drawl, Berner croons: “Like a broken tape recorder, or some kind of brain disorder / Nothin’ I do can shake this phoney drawl.”
Anyone who has attended afternoon jams or open-mic sessions will recognize this as a fairly widespread practice among a certain strain of singer/songwriter in this country.
“It’s about a cultural phenomenon in Canada where we have a feeling that our way of being isn’t good enough, that we should either be singing in a phoney American accent or a phoney English accent,” says Berner, in an interview from his home in Vancouver. “You hear that a lot.”
It fits nicely into Berner’s definition of Canadiana Grotesquica, being that it’s a phenomenon that seems both deeply Canadian and, according to Berner, if not outright grotesque then certainly “a bit sad”.
The new album, which Berner calls a “busman’s holiday” from his ongoing exploration of the punk/klezmer hybrid he has been perfecting since 2005’s Whisky Rabbi, is a collection of 10 songs that reflect the accordion-wielding songwriter, author (his second novel, The Fiddler Is A Good Woman, was also released this year in conjunction with the album) and political activist’s view of his home country in all its contradictions: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Some of the songs are relatively new while others have been occupying the outer reaches of Berner’s set lists for years, orphans of the singer/songwriter variety that didn’t really fit into his punk/klezmer vibe but have proven popular with audiences.
“A lot of my imagery is kind of grotesque, dark, or odd; bizarre, ugly sometimes,” Berner says. “So the Grotesquica part comes from that. But also, the original word means from the grotto, and refers to these strange masks that were pulled up by early archeologists in Europe. They found these old, disturbing masks and other artifacts. So grotesque refers to the sort of uncanny object that you haul up from an almost-forgotten past. It’s supposed to have both meanings.”
Grotesque may not be the first word that springs to mind when hearing these songs but more than a few are dark and irreverent. If anything, the nine originals on Canadiana Grotesquica—which also includes a haunting and lush cover of friend and frequent tour partner Rae Spoon’s living-in-Calgary lament My Heart Is A Piece Of Garbage. Fight! Seagulls Fight!—showcase his deft hand with melody and sly wordplay, which can occasionally get overlooked when wrapped in his trademark punk/klezmer grooves.
To say the songs are simple or straightforward, though, doesn’t really do them justice either. But Berner did adopt more of a singer/songwriter vibe for the album. While he didn’t put down his accordion, he did enlist guitarist/producer Paul Rigby, a neighbour of Berner’s whose work with Carolyn Mark and Neko Case he admires, to produce.
“I just made a decision to trust Paul Rigby right off the bat,” Berner says. “A lot of the arrangement ideas were largely his. Rigby is just the guy who I always thought of to do this kind of a record with.”
Berner and Rigby recorded in Vancouver’s Afterlife Studios, which takes up some of the space once occupied by the iconic Mushroom Studio. To fill out the arrangements, Berner enlisted longtime collaborators such as percussionist Wayne Adams and violinist and former Po’ Girl Diona Davies, while Ford Pier was brought in to play piano and keyboards, Keith Rose on bass, and Frazey Ford and Carolyn Mark to provide backup vocals.
The songs boast a variety of tones, from the acoustic-pop of the sly love song Trick You to the loping country-roots of The Ghost of Terry Fox (Is Looking Down on Me Tonight) and Don’t Play Cards for Money with Corby Lund to the wry Super Subtle Folk Song, which recalls the early work of Cracker and, lyrically, is anything but subtle.
Gino Odjick, Berner’s heartfelt tribute to the former Canucks enforcer, has proven popular on YouTube. Odjick himself has reportedly given it his thumbs up.
Berner wrote the song eight years ago at the behest of Dave Bidini as part of the Stolen From a Hockey Card concert the former Rheostatic organized for CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada. Alongside Sarah Harmer and The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, among others, Berner was asked to write a song about a hockey player for the event.
“I really wasn’t watching hockey anymore when I answered the call,” Berner says. “(Odjick) was on the last version of the Canucks that I followed in any way and he was an extraordinary figure. Most enforcers, the guys who do the fighting on the ice, are not the popular guy. They are kind of like the heel in the wrestling game or whatever. But Gino Odjick was a hero. People loved him. People would chant his name as he came onto the ice. There was something about the way he was on the ice and the way he behaved off the ice, too, that made him a very admirable character. He was the only guy I could think of who I really wanted to write about.”
Berner shows genuine affection when writing about Odjick, and other characters such as Alberta country singer Corb Lund. On the other hand, he turns up the political commentary on Super Subtle Folk Song, which blasts our stubborn insistence on increasing oil production despite clear signs of a damaged environment.
Confrontational political songs are hardly new territory for the singer. His repertoire includes Daloy Polizei, a live favourite about police brutality that cheerfully encourages audiences to sing along to the hook “fuck the police!”.
Official Theme Song For The 2010 Vancouver Whistler Olympic Games (The Dead Children Were Worth It!), which he wrote in 2008, criticized his hometown’s extravagant spending for the Olympics while referencing the closure of the coroner’s office that investigated children’s deaths in British Columbia.
“It starts with jokes and then sort of suckers you in,” says Berner about Super Subtle Folk Song and his approach to political songwriting in general. “I think you’re supposed to be entertaining, first. Otherwise, if I’m just yelling a bunch of slogans at people, it’s going to be hard to get them to buy a ticket next time. It’s the whole point of my shows is that it’s a fun drinking, shouting, singing party. But I don’t leave the politics out of it. After awhile, you notice, ‘Gee, everything around me is on fire right now, just like last summer’. If you’re just not going to write about that, you’re not much of an artist because you are leaving out a huge chunk of what’s going on around you.”