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Music Review: 54-40

December 28, 2008

This is one of those Canadian bands that got played on radio a lot more than they probably deserved, because the Canadian government dictates how many hours of Canadian content have to make it to air each week.

Don’t get me wrong. I like 54-40 okay. In fact, I’d list a half-dozen of their songs among the best rock singles Canada has ever produced. But there’s a lot of poopage in between.

The band, named for a famous slogan calling for the annexation of British Columbia by the U.S. (54-40 is the latitude of the proposed new border), is a four-piece from B.C., and formed in 1981. Still going today (with a change in guitar players in 2005), the band has managed to maintain a solid record of creativity and longetivity.

54-40 is often compared to REM, and the similarities are clear: there was lots of jangly guitar in both bands’ earlier work, and 54-40 singer Neil Osborne had to get through a couple of albums before you could really make out what he was saying, a bit like Michael Stipe. And the whole sound was, and remains, an organic, hippie-fuelled guitar-driven low-fi singer-songwriter sort of thing.

The problem I’ve always had with 54-40 is Osborne’s voice. He’s not really a singer, but an excellent performer (I’ve seen them twice, and enjoyed both shows). But Neil Osborne has one of those voices I can only take in moderation, and after half an LP I tend to want to hear something else.

And there’s a droning sameness to a lot of their music, experiments in songwriting that just don’t work in a pop-rock context. I can see that someone thinks they’re creating brilliant music, but the listenability factor has fallen behind one of the amps, I think. All in all, I can’t say 54-40 has produced an album consistently good from start to finish.

That being said, some of their songs are in fairly regular rotation on my playlists. One of them is Walk in Line, from 1988’s Show Me album. This is the disc that gave us One Day In Your Life and One Gun, two bigger hits, but Walk in Line is the one that has stayed with me. It has big guitars and a soaring chorus, and is very catchy … an idea that the band would revisit a few years later with the Dear, Dear album. That one put 54-40 smack on the charts with two big rockers (which sound scarily alike): Nice To Love You and She-La.

There’s been pretty steady output from 54-40 for close to 30 years. Most of it I find just too … whiny, I guess. But the standouts work well. And, like I said, Canadians know this band’s music because 54-40 singles get played non-stop, even if they’re not very good.

But I suspect that, someday, 54-40 will be recognized for something other than hit singles or popular albums. Someday, someone will realize that 54-40 is the “missing link” between 80s American alternative rock and the rise of grunge. Think about that. In the mid-80s, alternative rock was REM, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, etc. 54-40 took elements of those bands, detuned and added some West Coast sensibilities, as well as a certain now-past-its-due-date dirty-haired, shredded-sweater look. It wouldn’t be long before young bands down the Pacific coast in Seattle started creating a new kind of music, and grunge was born.

You can thank 54-40 for grunge, or blame them. But you should also know that their first big hit single, I Go Blind, was later covered by Hootie and the Blowfish, who sold more copies. And, as we all know, Hootie killed grunge (with help from the Spin Doctors). So it’s a bit of a vicious circle.

I’m going to listen to Walk in Line again.

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