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Canada's Stars, Sam Roberts, the Arcade Fire & Feist
Outbreak, rash and trend
by Mark Anderson

n old newspapering maxim says once is an outbreak, twice is a rash and three times makes a trend.

Call it a trend: a string of worthwhile albums out of Canada, eh? ["O Canada!" by Mary Bergherr]

A string of worthwhile albums out of Canada is strongly suggesting a trend.

Last year came CDs from Sam Roberts, the Arcade Fire and Feist. Next month there's a new one from the Toronto collective called Stars.

And in 2003, the year of the outbreak, Broken Social Scene won a Juno (the Canadian Grammy) for their evergreen 2002 album, You Forgot It In People.

Yet between lack of airplay, scant media attention and a hinky distribution system whereby Canadian albums often hit stores in their homeland months before stateside release, well, anyone who has overlooked these acts can't be blamed.

Stars' Set Yourself on Fire: no shortage of teeth.

The new album by Stars, for instance, was a 2004 release in Canada, but won't reach the states till next month.

Set Yourself on Fire, the band's third album, features fresh melodies, engaging his-and-hers vocals, a gothic tinge and no shortage of teeth – often in the form of impassioned singing and slashing guitars.

The album actually gains strength as it goes. By the tenth song, a jagged, rhythmic rocker called "He Lied About Death," the band finds full throttle and squeezes out a manic frenzy of sparks.

Stars is probably best uptempo, but many of the album's calmer moments are also impressive.

Sam Roberts' We Were Born In A Flame: music that might make the Beatles smile.

The backstory on Sam Roberts is a notch more curious. We Were Born In A Flame got stateside release in 2003 and went nowhere, but ended up earning three Junos last spring.

Then, upon re-release in the U.S. last summer, the album's best song, "The Canadian Dream," got lopped off.

Maybe that's because "S-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-m" is spelled out each time the chorus comes around.

Never mind that it's less a political creed than a really great song. Apparently, the timbre of the times says we won't have that sort of sedition creeping into our all-American iPods.

But even without its best, We Were Born In A Flame is filled with music that might make the Beatles smile, while Roberts, a native of Montreal, is credited with playing most of the instruments.

The Arcade Fire's Funeral: a roiling, swirling, beautiful mess.

Meanwhile, the Arcade Fire's Funeral is one of the most interesting albums coming out of any country last year.

The Montreal-based band's debut is a roiling, swirling, beautiful mess that has actually found its share of critical fanfare (although rumor says it's not the easiest CD to find).

Here the his/her stakes are raised to husband and wife, as Win Butler and Régine Chassagne weave intense, high-minded vocals around an incendiary art-rock motif. Said to be inspired by a trend-like spate of death among families of band members, the album's themes are reflectively dark. But the music is buoyant in spirit and becomes increasingly irresistible with repeated spins.

Feist's Let It Die: not just some backwoods bohemian retreat.

Perhaps best of all is a totally refreshing album by an enigmatic Calgary native, Leslie Feist.

Let It Die is a strange and special disc – parts pop, folk, rock and disco – flecked with timeless, eclectic instrumental flourishes and sneaky, danceable beats. Feist's singing adapts to the blizzard of styles like a Canadian to subzero temps.

But that's not to say Let It Die is some sort of backwoods bohemian retreat. In fact, it's urbane and witty and seems like an ideal sonic solution for sophisticates and the unwashed masses alike.

Feist is said to have bounced between a smattering of groups (including a stint with Broken Social Scene) before she recorded Let It Die over several months in France a few years back. The album boasts quirky international charm, but hit-sounding songs lurk at every turn.

An unlikely cover of "Inside and Out," a squirrelly 1979 Bee Gees dance-floor sensation, is the CD's showstopper. But to start and end there is like describing a great and sprawling country only in terms of its amusement parks.

Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People: when outbreak turns to rash.

Odd, then, that a quick check at Amazon.com shows Let It Die available only as a pricey import. What's that about?

Canada, of course, has never been a slouch in the world of music – birthing front-line hall of famers (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell), hit-making '60s/'70s icons (Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who), fringe-dwelling geniuses (Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen), concert-hall cash machines (Sarah McLaughlin, Celine Dion), youngish hipsters (Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne) ... and that's just for starters.

Those acts probably had some border-crossing issues, too.

Now our intrepid northward neighbors have spawned Stars, Sam Roberts, the Arcade Fire, Feist and Broken Social Scene. (At some point it should be noted: word of mouth says all five of these acts can put on remarkable shows; Stars, in fact, opened for Broken Social Scene at Dante's in Portland in late 2003 and it was most memorable.)

So the news isn't that they can't live without us. It's more that anytime we think we've cornered the market on anything, something better is likely to show up from someplace else. Lucky thing this trend is there for anyone with ears and the necessary level of perseverance.

It's also a trend we can dance to. How cool is that?

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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