various artists,
Northern Stars: A Canadian Singers & Songwriters Collection
(Rhino/Time-Life, 2007)

This is an ambitious attempt to represent the best of Canadian singing and songwriting on one 18-song disc. Although the sins of omission on such a project are inevitably huge, at least this CD does one thing well. It admirably represents popular music from the Great White North from the past decade. The Alanis Morissettes, Avril Lavignes and Nelly Furtados, for instance, are all here.

Other recent arrivals include Chantal Kreviazuk and Tal Bachman. Representing a slightly earlier generation (early 1990s) are such artists as the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan.

The problem is, this package sets out to do much more. It sets out to represent Canadian songwriters and singers.

The inclusion of Leonard Cohen's classic "Suzanne," for instance, or Bruce Cockburn's "Wondering Where the Lions Are" signals an attempt to represent a wide range of Canadian music from earlier, more interesting eras. Kate and Anna McGarrigle also appear. Wouldn't it have been useful then, if this disc had attempted to set out the most distinctive songs from 40 years of Canadian pop, rock and folk?

Instead they present us with a bland selection of Billboard hits that in no way touches the surface of the diversity of Canadian music.

Bryan Adams, featured here, was a huge international star, but his music bored me. And, while he was born and bred here, his music never struck me as being particularly Canadian. The Barenaked Ladies started out here as an (all-male) novelty group first banned by a nonironic Toronto mayor, their unusual name launching their otherwise unspectacular career. And while, Alanis, Avril and Nelly have had their day at the top of the charts, they stand on the shoulders of giants.

It is hard to paint a portrait of Canadian music without including the Neil Youngs, the Joni Mitchells, bands like the Guess Who, April Wine and the Tragically Hip, not to mention Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray. Rush broke through in the heavy rock idiom dominated by English and American bands. Max Webster at one time was the Toronto band. All are missing from this collection. (Mercifully, also excluded are the well-known Shania Twain and Celine Dion.)

And, other than Cohen and the McGarrigle sisters, who sing here in English, nothing from Quebec is included. And nothing from the East Coast! KD Lang's "Constant Craving" definitely belongs. And Tom Cochrane's "Life is a Highway" has resonance for lots of Canadians. At least these songs have life.

But a lot of the tracks on this CD, while well-known, don't have anything instrumentally or lyrically of much interest. (Could there be more than one or two ways on this earth to provide percussive rhythms? Do Canadians ever play any specific instruments, or just electric keyboards, guitars and drum kits -- if so, you'd never know it.) This CD, then, is the musical equivalent of the suburban tracts around the major cities. Bland, inoffensive, repetitive.

Who or what would I include instead?

Something by Kashtin. For the Moment's song "Freedom has Beckoned." Something, anything, from Cape Breton. Something by Harmonium, La Bottine Souriante, Gilles Vigneault. Offenbach or anything in French.

Any one of Stan Rogers' songs, for instance "Northwest Passage," "Barrett's Privateeers" or "The Mary Ellen Carter." Stompin' Tom Connors' "Tillsonburg," and Murray MacLachlan's "Farmer's Song."

From Ontario: Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," something by Loreena McKennitt and any song by the Tragically Hip (for the Tim Horton's crowd). To symbolize Toronto: something by Rough Trade or Max Webster. For Northern Ontario, the Grievous Angels, CANO, Ian Tamblyn's "Woodsmoke & Oranges."

From the west: James Keelaghan's song "Jenny Bryce," sung by Garnet Rogers, Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" as sung by Neil Young, Connie Kaldor's "Batoche," Ferron's "Testimony" and some early Stephen Fearing.

That's the CD that could have been. Heck, somebody has to tell the world how much good, distinct Canadian music there is out there. It sure isn't the producers of Northern Stars.

Ironically, as Alanis might say, most of the best and most distinctive talents are left off this disc. There are some solid hits here. But anyone looking for distinctive cultural voices will be sorely disappointed. Much closer to the mark is another collection out there, the Rough Guide to the Music of Canada. That one's even got a few of my favorites. You won't find them here.

review by
David Cox

1 December 2007

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