In the Wilderness: The Tragically Hip, 1988-1998

In the Wilderness

In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked or under-appreciated period of an artist’s career. In these “Slack chats,” we discuss highs, lows, and misconceptions, in order to shed new light on an era that we feel deserves a second look.

October 2017 found Canada in mourning over the loss of a national icon: songwriter, poet, activist, and lead singer of The Tragically Hip, Gordon Downie. While American media outlets ran stories on Downie’s untimely passing from an inoperable brain tumor – invariably referring to The Tragically Hip as “Canada’s Band” in the process – it was easy to imagine most Americans reacting to the news with a resounding response of who?

Formed in Kingston, Ontario in the mid-eighties, The Tragically Hip spent several years as a typical “working band,” slowly building a devoted following on the strength of their live performances and word-of-mouth support. By the time of 1991’s Road Apples, “The Hip” – as they were known in their homeland – had become one of the biggest acts in Canada. However, despite the outstanding one-two punch of albums that followed – Fully Completely (1992) and Day for Night (1994) – success in the United States remained elusive for the group.

I was one of those somewhat-rare U.S. listeners who latched onto The Hip during their brief dalliance with American radio in the mid-nineties. By extension, so too was my longtime friend – and fellow Arizona native – George Budney. Across the nation in Florida, Strange Currencies contributor Bert was one of those relatively-few Americans who had The Hip enthusiastically pitched to them by a Canadian expat. In this installment of In the Wilderness, the three of us discuss our thoughts on the first decade of The Tragically Hip’s recording career.

MR: Alright. We always start these by explaining why this era could be considered a “wilderness” for the artist in question. The premise of this one is a bit different. Essentially, what I am arguing is that America was a wilderness throughout The Tragically Hip’s entire career. Is that a fair characterization?

NB: Yes, most Americans have never heard of them.

GB: I think it probably is a good characterization, outside of the upper northeast and Detroit.

MR: Yeah. The Hip had some reach to Canada-adjacent places like Buffalo and Detroit.

NB: Residual effects from whoever they may have opened for in the U.S.

GB: The Hip’s rise corresponded with the expansion of the NHL to warm weather cities. The Hip’s wilderness is hockey’s. Coincidentally, warm winter cities full of retired Canadians.

MR: Interesting take.

GB: The first time I heard The Hip, outside of your house, was during an NHL hockey game.

MR: My approach for this chat is “how can we sell this VERY Canadian group to skeptical Americans who passed on them the first time around?”

GB: Listening to them this past couple weeks, they are a great mid-west blues band.

NB: Also, they were playing “roots rock” when Nirvana was exploding… I heard The Hip in ’91 when a Canadian friend from Windsor gave me a copy of Road Apples. I thought their name was lame.

GB: It is a very 90s name.

MR: Bert’s right. Their “rootsy” approach seemed to contrast with prevalent rock trends of the time. They corrected for that with Day for Night in some ways, but we’ll get there.

The Tragically Hip, EP (1988)

MR: If the question is “how do we sell this band,” the answer is definitively NOT the first EP.

NB: No! I can’t really say that I like any song off the first EP.

MR: Agreed. “Small Town Bringdown” is probably the best, but that’s a low bar.

GB: “Small Town” is the best there, but yes, low. But for 1988, it’s pretty good.

MR: Is it though? I mean, this EP sounds exactly like the cover looks. Badly dated bar rock…

NB: Ouch! This EP is not very good. Gord’s voice isn’t really either. He hasn’t grown into himself yet…

MR: Definitely hasn’t, as a vocalist or lyricist.

GB: No, but I will continue to defend “Small Town.” It’s a perfect opener for this band – Canada being music’s effective small town. It worked for the time.

MR: I’ll be totally honest. While I think The Hip eventually became a pretty interesting band musically, there’s no way they would’ve gotten a second look from me if not for Gordon Downie. He still represents about 90% of the appeal of this band for me.

GB: Oh, for certain. His solo albums confirm that.

NB: Absolutely!

MR: I know of no other band whose appeal is so tied to just one single member. At least not one that I like…

GB: Pavement? Nah, that’s not fair.

MR: Malkmus dominates, sure, but not the same. For instance, even if Tim doesn’t agree, Spiral Stairs contributes a decent song now and then.

GB: Can’t say it for Pixies either, but it’s close.

MR: Pixies had Kim Deal – of course – and Joey Santiago, who is a really distinctive guitarist.

GB: Since we have the group from that chat together again, Dinosaur Jr?

MR: Maybe. J Mascis kind of dominates.

NB: J dominates lyrically, but Murph slams and Lou holds his own.

MR: Perhaps Guided by Voices, though I do love a good Tobin Sprout song. Either way, what I’m saying is The Hip only goes as far as Gord Downie can carry them. On this EP, that’s really nowhere…

GB: So, this is an early question then: why The Hip and not Gord as a solo artist? What do The Hip bring that Gord can’t? There is a harder edge to The Hip songs than Gord’s solo work. Harsher, not in a bad way – just heavier.

MR: Rock, I suppose. They really speak to that “working class bar band” sound that resonates with some people. Downie just brought a really unique presence to it. At least in time.

GB: Agree – and for their intended audience it’s a very good fit. Grinder music, a bit. Dare I say gritty?

MR: You know I adore Gritty, but you’re really trying too hard to push the hockey angle.

NB: Gord had clever lyrics that were very Canadian.

GB: What makes them Canadian?

MR: They really leaned into their Canadian-ness, which most groups from north of the 49th parallel seem to try to run away from. Eventually Gord Downie finds ways to work that “Canadiana” into the music in a compelling way. However, on this first EP, all you get is the rather trite “Last American Exit.” And that horrible song about a werewolf. Maybe that’s a Canadian thing?

NB: “Corduroy roads” and Bill Barilko. “Bobcaygeon”?

MR: Let’s stick with the first EP for now. Discipline, people.

NB: In that case, there’s nothing Canadian about it. It’s not very interesting at all, really.

MR: No, only in that it sounds more than a few years behind the American trends of the time. I guess that’s kind of Canadian, I suppose.

GB: Okay. I feel like we still need to address a couple questions: why is this a wilderness?; and why are they special?

NB: They are/were ENORMOUS in Canada. And, most Americans have never heard of them. They’re the closest thing to a national band for Canada. The U.S. has nothing like that.

MR: Yeah, we’re having two conversations at the same time, I suppose. It’s a wilderness, but only in America, since no one seemed to notice them much. They’re special because of Gord Downie.

NB: Actually, they’re also special because of the democracy within the band!

GB: For me, it’s a wilderness in the sense of undiscovered territory. I don’t think it would be a wilderness if they were from say Athens, Georgia. It’s a wilderness because they’re Canadian, and who really cares when there was so much good American stuff available at the time. They are special because of Gord.

MR: And then the other conversation: the first EP sucks.

GB: …but “Small Town Bringdown” is good, and “Evelyn” and “Cemetery Sideroad” are serviceable.

MR: Meh…

GB: Would you say they are more ‘local’ than a hyper-local band like The Hold Steady?

MR: Maybe. They seem to be a band that is impossible to separate from their place of origin. Perhaps similar to R.E.M. in that regard – a band that, in some ways, isn’t a bad reference point for The Hip.

GB: Are they more Canadian than Rush?

NB: I’ve got several Canadian friends and The Hip are in the top five for all of them. Their final concert was broadcast to the nation!

GB: I’ve worked with several Canadians. When they find out I like The Hip I seem to get a special status.

MR: So, let’s wrap up these first two conversations. I think we’ve defined the wilderness and what makes them special, and also established that George has something of a soft spot for this sub-mediocre EP. Anything else?

NB: That sums it up!

GB: Going back to the democracy comment, The Hip always struck me as the perfect late-Cold War band. I don’t know if that shows on the EP, but I think it does for later records.

MR: Hmm. Elaborate.

GB: I feel like there is an outsider perspective that doesn’t always show through in American rock at the time – an awareness of the struggle, perhaps. You feel it in later records; “Fireworks,” for sure, where they’ve resolved to be on ‘this side’ because it is more of a meritocracy. Hard to explain. Let’s come back to it with the later records.

Up to Here, LP (1989)

MR: Okay. Let’s move on to Up to Here. I will say, there are at least some good songs on this one.

NB: Several of my favorite songs on here! Some throwaways though…

GB: A proper debut. I really have always liked “Blow at High Dough.”

MR: Yeah, right off the bat there’s some far more interesting scene setting: “they shot a movie once, in my home town…” That track is good, and “New Orleans is Sinking.” I will say though, that those became pretty legendary for live performances. The studio versions seem a bit tame by comparison.

GB: Getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but I think I prefer the live versions, where available.

NB: I like “Opiated.” “Another Midnight” is great! “38 Years Old’ is good.

MR: I’ll agree with “Another Midnight.” That’s a pretty good one. “38 Years Old” is one that sounds pretty lame at first, but there’s some real lyrical depth to it.

GB: As a true first album, why didn’t it break through?

MR: I think it was pretty big in Canada.

NB: It was, because my Windsor buddy in Florida was excited for Road Apples to come out.

MR: But I can see why it didn’t hit big in America. This is pretty dated sounding, even for 1989.

GB: That it’s Canadian means it was sonically 1979… Welcome to Saskatchewan, please set your watch back ten years.

MR: Popular rock was still in a big hair phase, and this was way too square for underground/indie fans. Sonically, it’s really just like a late-70s/early-80s bar rock sound. The depth is tough to pick up on.

GB: I don’t know about dated, but I think it’s in a vein that’s not very popular. The contemporary here is, maybe George Seger?

MR: Bob Seger?

NB: Pete Seeger?

GB: Yes, Bob.

MR: Thin Lizzy, but with fewer hooks?

GB: I don’t know – Gord references hookers A LOT.

MR: Eventually.

GB: Oh – hooks. Makes more sense; although, I like it as read.

MR: This is a definite improvement over the first EP from a lyrical perspective, but the music (mostly) isn’t there yet. I think the band would catch up to the quality of Gord’s writing here in time, which is why the live versions of the two earlier-mentioned tracks resonate with me more than these takes.

GB: That is a great point.

NB: Do you guys like “Boots or Hearts”?

MR: It’s okay.

GB: It’s alright.

NB: What’s the low point on this one?

MR: “I’ll Be Leaving You” is pretty dorky.

NB: Big time.

GB: Yeah, Patrick Swayze in Road House dorky. I bet they were all pretty good live, though.

MR: Yeah, and they never gave up that hard-charging rock band thing, which – when paired with their best songs – made for a super formidable live band. This is a step in the right direction, but not yet the band that I’d present to our readers.

GB: No not yet. It might have worked up north, but there was no way this album was going to compete with 1989 American tastes. Again, outside of Buffalo.

MR: It’s a very “80’s rural America” sound. I can picture people playing billiards to most of these songs.

GB: Yes, Upper Midwest – with a cold LaBatts.

NB: Moosehead.

MR: Some kind of cheap domestic. Last thoughts on Up to Here?

NB: It’s a decent debut. It signaled promise.

GB: “New Orleans is Sinking” is a classic, for the opening chords alone.

MR: Yeah. A good song that would become great in time.

Road Apples, LP (1991)

MR: Alright, Road Apples. This is where I think we can start to see The Hip that we’d come to know and love.

NB: Yep. It was my entry.

GB: The band is catching up to Gord – from the very start. As a lyricist he is coming into his own. He has this ability to say something really mundane that at the same time is deeply profound.

MR: I didn’t hear this one until 1997, at which point I had heard the three albums that followed. At the time, I felt like it was a little too bar rock – especially something like “Twist My Arm” – but yeah, the songwriting on this one is pretty good throughout.

NB: He’s gone up a level!

GB: He creates menace on “Little Bones.” I just love the “happy hour” lines about an eyeball and an ear.

MR: Bert, I know you love the last two tracks on this album. What makes those stand out?

NB: “Fiddler’s Green” is just so personal. I love it!

MR: It is based on a family tragedy, right?

NB: It’s about Gord’s nephew, who had a heart problem and died young. He never played it live. I love that song. It gets me every time! In fact, I was driving out to the coast with my son during the fires and it happened to be September 17th…

GB: Listening to it now, you can hear the pain of it. Where does Gord land on the all-time lyricist list?

NB: Double-digits…

MR: He’s a personal favorite, but one that I can understand not resonating in the same way as some of my other favorites.

GB: This may be a theme throughout: is he the same without The Hip?; does the backing band make that big of a difference?

MR: We’ll get there in time, but I think on some of these more acoustic tracks – “Fiddler’s” being the first – you can really see the strength of The Hip is in his writing.

NB: There’s nothing like that song before it in their catalog.

MR: Nothing that even suggests that kind of depth.

GB: There are so many moments where the band makes the song, though. “Three Pistols” doesn’t work as well, for one, without them.

MR: Yeah, I agree with that, George. “Three Pistols” is a really good example of their somewhat-basic sound hitting on a different level. “Cordelia” has some of that menacing sound that you referenced earlier.

GB: That first hard punch-in on “Cordelia” – about a minute in – is a good example of what The Hip can do.

MR: There are a couple of songs on here that lag for me, but nothing that’s outright bad. It’s a dramatic improvement from Up to Here, which in itself was a dramatic improvement from that really bad first EP.

GB: What’s the low point?

MR: “Fight”? Maybe “On the Verge”?

GB: The band almost outshines Gord on both of those.

NB: Yeah, those two are boring leadups to “Fiddler’s Green” and “The Last of the Unplucked Gems.”

MR: Again, neither are bad. Either would’ve been the best thing on the first EP by a long shot (I’m just REALLY making sure that our readers don’t start there. Or even end up there eventually. Just unnecessary…) Okay. Last thoughts on Road Apples?

GB: What is the underrated track here? Because I have an opinion…

MR: I would’ve said “Three Pistols” for years, but that ended up on their “best of” compilation.

GB: “Three Pistols” is a good option, but I’m going to say “The Luxury,” if only for the live album version.

MR: “The Luxury” is okay, but yeah, I like the live version more.

NB: We’re still a ways away from the live album, but yeah, many of the early songs are better there.

Fully Completely, LP (1992)

MR: Well, in the spirit of dramatic improvements, Fully Completely is a legitimately great album, right?

GB: Yes, yes it is – with terrible artwork.

MR: Artwork is pretty bad, though they would do much worse:

NB: That is also bad.

MR: Let’s start with the lows, since we’ve got a lot of highs to cover with this album.

GB: “We’ll Go Too” and “Lionized.”

MR: In a more general sense, I’d like to focus on production.

GB: It suffers from 90s over-production. It’s very glossy for The Hip.

MR: I know “production” is usually a catch-all for people who don’t know anything about making music, but there are some specific choices on here that I find a little bothersome.

GB: It feels like everything is at the same level.

MR: Yeah, the mixing is pretty bad, and there’s a really sterile sound to a lot of the individual pieces.

GB: I know what you mean; I resisted it for a while because of that. There were a number of early/mid-90s albums that I feel like suffered the same fate. Neutering the music.

MR: Very specific gripes, but I’m also not a big fan of the bridge-middle pickup Stratocaster sound that they use a lot here, and some of the distorted guitar parts sound a little “Metal Zone-y” to me. Now, with that out of the way, this album has some fantastic songwriting all the way through.

GB: Oh, heck yes. Not too many missteps.

MR: This is where they really seem to start hitting their stride on the Canadian folklore front.

GB: This is the first album where I wish I knew more of Canada’s history.

NB: This is wallpapered in Canadian imagery!

MR: George and I were in a bar in Revelstoke, British Columbia, and there was a framed copy of this album on the wall.

GB: Yeah. That was my favorite moment on that trip.

MR: I’d give Lake Louise the edge over the framed Hip album, but it was a nice touch. Some pretty major Hip songs here: “Courage,” At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” “Fully Completely,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “Wheat Kings.”

GB: What’s the second tier on this album?

MR: Well, even second tier on this album is still really good: “Looking for a Place to Happen,” “Pigeon Camera,” “The Wherewithal,” “Eldorado.”

NB: “We’ll Go Too” isn’t bad. It is cheesy, perhaps, but it rolls!

GB: Is there a missed mark?

NB: “Lionized”?

GB: Yeah – that’s about it, maybe.

MR: I’d put “Lionized” and “We’ll Go Too” at a third tier, but even those are pretty okay.

GB: Rare that we view a wilderness album so well. There are usually 3-4 misses, but this is pretty solid, start-to-end.

MR: Well, we’ve given high marks to several wilderness records, but this is something of a special case, given our definition of “wilderness” this time.

MR: Also a special case, where we are assigning a wilderness era to a band’s prime.

NB: Gord is very good on this record!

MR: Yes. Gord had hit his stride at this point. The band were still shaking off some of their “trad” tendencies, but getting more interesting.

NB: I just took this from Rolling Stone:

‘Wheat Kings’ begins with the calls of a solitary loon and recounts the true case of David Milgaard, who was wrongly imprisoned for 23 years for the killing of a young Saskatchewan nurse.

GB: That song is so good. I’ve looked that story up before – example of music activism at its best. It’s like a Canadian “Hurricane” [Bob Dylan’s 1975 song about the wrongfully imprisoned Rubin Carter].

MR: “Wheat Kings” is great – one of my absolute favorites of theirs.

NB: I was playing and singing this loudly after school once and my neighbor teacher – who is from BC – came in and was quite impressed. In fact, she couldn’t believe I knew them.

MR: Have either of you listened to their best-of comp [Yer Favorites] much? They remixed all of the Fully Completely songs on there. They’re a lot punchier/better sounding. I’d like a full remix of the album…on vinyl.

NB: I have asked all my Canadian connections to look for Hip albums and they laugh. Gord’s death may bring about some vinyl reissues.

MR: I’ve found them at my favorite record store in Vancouver [Red Cat Records]. Picked up Day for Night last time I was there. Oddly, I’ve found Gord Downie’s solo records pretty easily in Portland. I have Coke Machine Glow [2001] and have seen the others as well.

GB: That doesn’t surprise me; Gord vinyl makes more sense than The Hip. Gord feels hipster; The Hip feels blue collar. You’re not going to find blue collar on vinyl – just tape and “Nice Price” CDs.

MR: Well, not in the U.S. Once I can cross the border again though… Last thoughts on Fully Completely?

GB: Good album that – only and barely – suffers from some bad production choices.

MR: Agree. Solid album, front-to-back.

GB: Best track? Underrated track? I’m going to go with “Courage” and “At the Hundredth Meridian,” respectively.

NB: “Fifty-Mission Cap.” Wild story! Underrated.

MR: Most of the best loom pretty large in their legacy. My favorite is definitely “Wheat Kings.” Underrated… “Eldorado”?

GB: “And tired of thinking ’bout drinking/For thinking of drinking/While thinking ’bout drinking/And thinking ’bout drinking.” I’m impressed everything time he pulls that lyrical knot off.

NB: “Pigeon Camera” is kinda underrated.

MR: It’s hard to tell what is underrated I suppose. I’ve heard that over half of these songs were/are Canadian radio staples, and that some kind of absurd ratio of the nation’s population owns this record. I’ll have to find the statistic on the ownership thing…

GB: The idea that they were so big and so near to the U.S. – yet so unknown – is such a strange thought. So much Canadian culture broke through; I don’t quite get it. Why Kids in the Hall and not The Hip? Must have been so incredibly frustrating…

NB: I just texted my buddy in BC, and he says you can hear any song from Fully Completely on the radio!

MR: While looking for the statistic, I found this factoid on Wiki:

During production of the second album, singer Gordon Downie had announced that he would no longer sing lyrics written by other members of the band. Fully Completely was the first album that would follow that decision by Downie.

Fully Completely sold over 1,000,000 in Canada – a country with a population of under 30 million in 1992. That’s kind of insane. A modern comparison would be an American band selling about 11 million in the United States. So that’s what we need to consider in our playlist selection. How do we sell this band to our audience? Like other artists who could serve as a reference point? Here at the halfway point, what comps do we think are reasonable?

NB: You mean their homegrown counterparts like Blue Rodeo?

MR: No. Someone that Americans actually care about.

NB: Tom Petty?

MR: Maybe.

GB: Yeah, maybe Petty. I think the R.E.M. comparison is valid, maybe not year-to-year though.

MR: I once heard them referred to as The Stones, fronted by Michael Stipe, with Springsteen-like themes.

NB: Drive-By Truckers? Is that too country?

GB: Lucero, maybe? Perhaps some Creedence. The Hip are hard for me, because they aren’t like most of the other bands I listen to – more Road House than most. I think The Hold Steady, maybe, for sound.

MR: So maybe we sell them with less of that blues-based sound, and more of the acoustic, narrative-driven stuff?

GB: I think the Seger comparison is valid…

NB: …wait… Toad the Wet Sprocket?

MR: Don’t think we’re gonna sell them to the Strange Currencies audience with any of those comps…

GB: Well, what would you say, Matt?

MR: R.E.M.? Closest sounding good band that I can think of, but it’s tough. Both bands had a pretty wide range of sounds, but there are times where I hear a song like “Wheat Kings” and think “that could be on Automatic for the People.”

GB: I think R.E.M. is a good comparison.

NB: I wouldn’t classify any R.E.M. from the IRS days as comparable to The Hip.

GB: Really? I can hear it through at least Document.

MR: Maybe some of more anthemic Document songs. I mean, “The One I Love” kind of could pass for a mid-period Hip song.

NB: I’m ok with that.

MR: Again, Canada being ten years behind and all, it makes sense.

Day for Night, LP (1994)

MR: Okay, Day for Night. This was the first one that I ever heard. “Nautical Disaster” got some play on local radio, and they also were on SNL around the time that it was released. My older brother is the one who bought it. He was into some of that “adult alternative” stuff at the time (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Big Head Todd and the Monsters). I initially though that The Hip was more of that, but there was a lot more depth that revealed itself pretty quickly.

GB: I will always associate this record with studying for finals in the fall of 2000. This album reminds me of depression, which isn’t fair, at all, for the record. To its credit, it is my ‘getting out of…’ depression album.

MR: It’s a dark record – certainly the darkest in their catalog.

GB: Absolutely – “Nautical Disaster,” “Inevitability of Death,” “Impossibilium” – but it works.

NB: Yes.

MR: Right off the bat, there’s an atmosphere to this record that is seriously lacking on the previous ones. Sometimes I wonder if it was an overcorrection, but I think the production/mixing holds up pretty well. It’s heavy – which maybe contributes to the “depression” thing – but it works well with these songs. Another guitar nerd thing, but I love the slow burn sounds here, as opposed to the super compressed sounds on Fully Completely.

NB: This was nearly a decade after the EP and more than a decade for them together.

MR: Totally different band than on that crap EP.

GB: Yes, they’re tight.

MR: I mean, the “tightness” was always there, but there was finally some real intrigue to the music. This is where the band comes closest to matching Downie. There are layers on this record that nothing before – or after – in their catalog has.

GB: Yes, I agree with that.

NB: Is “Grace, Too” the favorite here or “Nautical Disaster”?

MR: “Nautical Disaster” is my favorite. “Grace, Too” and “Scared” are next, but I like every song on this record. All of them.

GB: Oh man – I love this album so much. “Nautical Disaster” is my favorite, but it’s very close: “Daredevil,” “An Inch an Hour,” “So Hard Done By”…

MR: “Daredevil” is great.

NB: I like “Yawning or Snarling.” I actually like “Thugs”; I think some people don’t.

GB: “Thugs” is great.

MR: Totally. I love the chorus: “I do the rolling, you do the detail.” “Thugs in perpetuity” is a great line too.

GB: “Thugs” reminds me of playing city league hockey against Matt.

MR: Good times.

GB: “Everyone’s got their breaking point/With me it’s spiders, with you it’s me” is one of Gord’s great lines.

NB: So, our favorite records kind of go in reverse order at this point? Day for Night, Fully Completely, Road Apples, Up to Here

GB: Oh, absolutely. I prefer Day for Night over Fully Completely, one-hundred percent. My wife and I have had a rolling Spotify playlist going since like 2017. I think most of Day for Night may be on it at this point.

MR: I alternate between this and Fully Completely. That one has the iconic Hip songs, but this album just feels more interesting.

NB: Well, the sound is way bigger here! The first four songs are great, but is “Fire in the Hole” a bit of a letdown?

MR: I like “Fire.” I think that’s the one that provided another easy entry for me, given that I was into the band Live, for some reason, at the time. The Hip seemed like a more mature take on a similar kind of thing. This is the album that I think should have broken them in America. I mean, it found me in Flagstaff of all places.

GB: It totally should have.

NB: Agree!

MR: This one feels really in line with the sounds of the time. I’ve seen people compare it to Pearl Jam. I can see that, but this has vastly superior songwriting.

GB: Yeah, what was the Pearl Jam contemporary album, Vitalogy?

MR: Yeah, Vitalogy came out at around the same time.

GB: What else was big? Smashing Pumpkins? This holds up to both Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie.

NB: Dinosaur Jr.’s Without A Sound. Dookie was ’94. Nas’ Illmatic was ’94. I think lots of teenagers here were going toward hip-hop.

GB: True, but for college rock, this was in the wheelhouse. The Hip would have been in line with their contemporaries, then; maybe a little ahead.

MR: Yeah. I mean, look at all of the tools who were getting into Dave Matthews at this time. “College rock” still had a lot of pull. I think the Pearl Jam/Live comparison is probably a little closer than the others, but yeah, those others were all big albums at the time.

GB: So, what kept them from breaking, in your opinion? Not hard enough for metal fans, not a big enough profile to compete with Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots?

NB: Day for Night was on Atlantic Records, right? Who knows!

MR: Trying to sell an hour-long album with a chorus-less five-minute track about a fictional shipwreck isn’t exactly a recipe for success, I guess. Not sure that there was a better/easier entry point though.

NB: It may have been too smart for our market then. We were all just pissed off…

MR: I mean, really. Maybe “Fire in the Hole” would’ve been an easier selling point for the American audience. Perhaps Day for Night just doesn’t have the hooks. The Hip are more of an advanced/acquired-taste sound. Same reason why Budweiser sells more than your favorite craft brew, I suppose. Canadians gave the band a longer look than the relatively fickle American audience was willing to.

GB: Or at least a first look.

NB: Also, Canada requires radio stations to play a certain percentage of Canadian music each hour.

GB: Yeah, but I hate to think that government subsidies are the reason why they were popular.

NB: Definitely not. But, it helps bands get established.

GB: The second half of Day for Night lags a little behind the first, but that is a petty gripe.

MR: The second half is a little lower key in a way, but the songs are just as strong.

NB: So, if there is a weak track on this, what is it?

GB: Maybe “Emergency.”

MR: Part of me wants to say there isn’t one, but maybe “Titanic Terrarium.” Still, that one has some great lines.

GB: One of those, but I feel bad about saying so.

NB: I think it may be “Titanic Terrarium” also. It’s wedged between some better stuff. If it wasn’t on the record, it would have lucky 13. Is this album a bit too long?

GB: I don’t think so. It’s just about right.

MR: Records were getting pretty long at that point. It’s long, but it doesn’t drag too much.

Trouble at the Henhouse, LP (1996)

MR: Let’s move on to Trouble at the Henhouse. Sound wise, this one finds a middle ground between the more direct early stuff and the “hazy” Day for Night.

GB: I always forget about Henhouse, which isn’t fair

NB: I like this one! I like a LOT of these songs.

GB: Agree – but I think I prefer the live versions, across the board. “Springtime in Vienna” is great.

MR: Yeah. Some of their best songs are on here, and then some kind of middling ones too. I think the first three songs are great, but it trails off a bit after that.

NB: Great opener here. Clearly, “Ahead by a Century” is here.

MR: Yes. “Ahead by a Century” is their best track in my book.

NB: Great song! But, I also like “Gift Shop,” “Springtime In Vienna,” “Flamenco,” “Butts Wigglin’,” and “Put It Off.” The second half isn’t great.

MR: My second favorite is “Flamenco.” LOVE that song…

GB: “Flamenco” is good – but pro tip: avoid putting it on a playlist unless you want to have an awkward conversation about the, “Maybe a prostitute could teach you how to take a compliment” line. It pays to Google lyrics first.

MR: One of my favorite Gord lines. I like “Let’s Stay Engaged,” and I like the guitar sound in “Coconut Cream” – even if the song doesn’t really go anywhere.

NB: I have that issue with a fair amount of their songs, actually. Sound or lyrics grabs me, but the song just doesn’t work somehow.

MR: I think that’s particularly true on this album. Some of the songs seem half-formed by the standards of the previous two albums.

NB: Yes. Almost noodling…

GB: Good point. Working drafts… “Sherpa” is cool, but maybe the height of the unfinished. Ditto for “Apartment Song” – an idea that is missing execution.

MR: Yeah, that whole second half of the album is kind of unfinished sounding. Last thoughts on this one?

NB: Some great songs, but some duds. Still, you gotta have it for a few of them!

GB: This could have been a great record. Do you think it’s a hangover from Fully Completely and Day for Night, the way that say Up [1998] is for R.E.M.?

MR: No, because Up is great. I’ll die on that hill.

GB: Maybe not UpNew Adventures in Hi-Fi?

MR: No. Hi-Fi is great. I’ll die on that hill.

Live Between Us, LP (1997)

MR: Okay, let’s talk about the live one.

NB: So, their live album is something you play frequently? I have it. I like it. I don’t play it too much.

GB: Yes, comically so. It may be my favorite live record.

MR: Before this week, the last time I remember hearing it was on that same Banff trip with George, when we were dangerously close to running out of gas, with no station for miles (or kilometers, rather). He chose the album. I was too busy being pissed at him.

GB: I listen to the live album like once a month.

MR: That’s a lot.

GB: I know. We all have our “I can’t think of anything else” records. It’s my road trip, driving and I’m bored album.

MR: There are live albums that are worthwhile because of historical significance, and live albums that are worthwhile because the artists that made them just happened to be great live. This is definitely an example of the latter, where I tend to prefer the former.

GB: It’s for sure the latter. It’s a band at their live performance peak. And it has the best stage banter you’ll ever hear.

MR: Yeah, Gord’s banter was legendary. Truly something to witness live.

GB: “Catharsis, and my arse is capable of more flush.” “We’re all richer for having seen them.” “Shaking a banana peel at people.”


GB: I was trying to share that with my wife earlier. She thought I was crazy.

MR: So many great, random banter lines. Have either of you heard any of the semi-legendary “killerwhaletank” versions of “New Orleans is Sinking”?

NB: Not sure…

GB: I have not.

MR: Look it up. It’s basically a long story that he goes into about working at an aquarium in a killer whale tank.

NB: Sounds like something he’d say. I started looking for this when Gord died because I never saw them live.

GB: So what tracks are better than the album cuts? *Spoiler – all of them.

MR: I do enjoy it. Super solid performance, and in front of an American audience to boot.

GB: Headed into this, my big struggle has been not picking all the live versions of these songs during the draft.

NB: Can’t pick live versions…

MR: Yeah, I tend to think live recordings out of context are distracting.

GB: Straight up – completely biased – I love this album more than most, and ahead of all merit.

Phantom Power, LP (1998)

MR: Well, let’s get to the last record on our list: Phantom Power.

GB: Phantom Power was my first from them – and would have occupied mental space against Frank Black and probably Beck. I was trying to count earlier; I think I saw them live 3-4 times. Once on the tour for Phantom Power, at what I think was their peak.

MR: Yeah, I saw them twice on this tour. I’ll talk about the second time in a few minutes.

NB: Another great collection of songs! Great opener!

MR: Yeah, “Poets” is great.

NB: Obviously, “Bobcaygeon” is great, but I also love “Thompson Girl,” “Escape is at Hand for the Travelin’ Man,” and “Fireworks.”

MR: Yeah. All of those tracks are great.

GB: “Fireworks” was the big draw, but I have come to love “Bobcaygeon” so much more. Back to my Cold War comment; I think my perception stems from this album. Mostly “Fireworks,” but a few others that feel resigned to that “we’re backing the winner/2nd place ally” feel. A resignation perhaps, but realization of role.

MR: Interesting thesis. “Bobcaygeon” is the highlight for me. I do love “Fireworks” though too. This is another solid front-to-back album. I’d say it’s their “pop” record.

NB: That’s fair. Do we like “Vapour Trails”?

GB: We do like “Vapour Trails.”

MR: I like it. Not among the best on the album, but solid. I would put “Escape is at Hand” as another real highlight. One of my favorites of theirs.

GB: How do you guys feel about “The Rules”?

NB: It’s okay. The song has a bit of a strange vibe.

GB: I like the “bachelor’s degree” line in “Emperor Penguin”; it has always stuck with me. That line and the one in “Bobcaygeon” about thinking about quitting; that’s adulthood.

MR: I will say, even if this is their “pop” album, it’s still weird. I remember a specific incident that put it into perspective. I drove back to Flagstaff from Phoenix after one of my brother’s baseball tournaments with my dad and another random mom of one of the players. He and I had listened to Phantom Power at the end of the trip down, and we just left it on the whole three-hour ride home. There were at least 8-10 lines over the course of the album that were really awkward with a random passenger in the car, and hearing it three or four times front-to-back over the course of the trip really shed light on the idiosyncratic nature of Gord Downie’s appeal.

NB: I bet! Gord is among the kings of one-liners.

MR: I remember the “vacuum salesman” line being one of them. It seems normal, I guess, but listen to it four times with someone you don’t know, and all of a sudden it reveals a weirdness that reminds you of your own initial exposure to The Hip.

GB: That’s the line that makes it though. That’s a good point; The Hip is very personal, it seems. It’s all about how and who you heard them with.

NB: That’s the best part of music, isn’t it? When a stranger loves an obscure line that you love!

GB: Yes! Shades of pre-internet, when you’d meet someone with a cool band t-shirt.

MR: Either way, this is a great record, and probably the most accessible they ever got.

GB: Yes; it’s where I would start. I am a huge fan of this album, but it may be circumstantial to being 19.

MR: Last thoughts on this album?

GB: It was the last chance at a big break, I suppose. They we’re either going to make it here or become niche.

MR: Well, I think I witnessed the very moment in which they gave up on the U.S., and that’s why I wanted to end this “wilderness” here. I saw The Hip in Flagstaff on the NAU campus in April 1999. I was there with my dad, my brothers, and maybe 60 other people. Here was a band that had sold millions of albums in Canada, playing in front of a crowd that was the equivalent of two full benches in a beer league hockey game. To their credit, they put on a pretty good show, but nowhere near the level that I had seen the previous year in Phoenix, in front of a decent-sized club crowd.

NB: Oh, man that’s sad.

MR: I can imagine them having a “fuck this shit” moment at that show. I don’t necessarily believe that I witnessed them giving up on the U.S., but I imagine a few shows like that would send a pretty strong message to a group that was massive back at home.

GB: Yeah, that would be super disheartening and make it hard to want to come back.

MR: To me, at least, it never seemed like any of their subsequent albums had any kind of stateside push. From there, I generally had to find out about a new Hip album by looking through the racks at the record store.

NB: I don’t have anything after this, except for the follow-up. Gord started doing solo stuff around 2000 also.

MR: Yeah, the average album quality dipped after this as well, which didn’t help. From 2001 on, I was far more interested in Gordon Downie as a solo artist than The Tragically Hip as a band.

MR: So now, the tough task. We need to build a playlist that can paint this band in a light that maximizes their appeal to an audience that may not dig the blues-based/bar rock sound that endeared The Hip to tons of working-class Canadians.

NB: Easy! We’ve got some darkness, some ballads…

MR: No live tracks, George.

GB: Boooooo…

MR: Boo all you want. They’re distracting.

GB: Boo…

MR: Okay, since George is too busy booing, Bert has first pick.

NB: Yessss! I’m gonna go with one that I doubt anyone else will pick: “Another Midnight.”

GB: Shut up and play the hits – “Fireworks.”

MR: “Wheat Kings.” Round 2:

NB: “Fiddler’s Green”

GB: “Bobcaygeon”

MR: “Daredevil.” Round 3:

NB: “Courage”

GB: “Ahead by a Century”

MR: “Escape is at Hand for the Travelin’ Man.” Round 4:

NB: “Thompson Girl”

GB: “Nautical Disaster”

MR: “Scared.” Last round. Make ’em count.

NB: “At the Hundredth Meridian”

GB: “Little Bones”

MR: “Flamenco”

NB: “Poets,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “Cordelia,” “Blow at High Dough,” “Springtime in Vienna,” “Grace, Too.” This hurts…

MR: Lots of good leftovers, but we’ll leave those to our readers to discover on their own. Just as we did ourselves.

NB: Tough stuff! At least we mentioned them all.

GB: This is the hardest one we’ve done so far.

MR: Perhaps, but it was a pretty rich “wilderness.”

NB: It feels personal to all of us.

GB: Such a good band that deserved more success. At the same time, I love them because they’re “mine.”

MR: They got to be a “national band” of a pretty cool country; even if it is one that is perpetually a decade behind the U.S. That’s not nothing… By the way, Canada, watch out; the next few years are gonna be a bitch…


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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  • George Budney

    George Budney is a guest writer for Strange Currencies Music. Though he has no musical talent himself, he has the good fortune of friends that do. His interests include music, old cars, dogs, and other fringe pursuits.

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  • Nick Bertram

    I have been a melomaniac for as long as I can remember. By middle school, I had become a serious music collector. By high school, I had every record store in town mapped out in my brain and frequently made the rounds on the hunt for the classics and the obscure!

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2 thoughts on “In the Wilderness: The Tragically Hip, 1988-1998

  1. I saw the top 100 listing by astroturf78 and read through this discussion. Although I appreciate you all dedicating time to The Hip, dudes you are somewhat clueless. You sound like a group of Millennials who think music begins when you started getting pimples. That top 100 listing is a joke, not based in reality. Honestly, when it comes to The Hip, it is you are in the wilderness. But hey great to see the effort being put in otherwise.

    1. Of all the critiques one might have of this site, labeling us as people who “think music begins when you started getting pimples” is a rather curious choice. A three-part feature on Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’; a month dedicated to The Beatles; a ranking of thirty-some Charles Mingus albums; introductions to exotica, tropicalia, space age pop, country blues, and blaxploitation; a podcast series devoted to The Beach Boys; a fifteen-part survey of American garage rock; and a 1000-song project that traces pop music from 1920-2019 would all seem to suggest otherwise. Thanks for reading though…

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