Where Have All The Good Songwriters Gone? Well, There's At Least One Left

Aug 3, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great rock that draws on a wealth of influences

Cons:A couple moments lacking direction; nothing big, really...

The Bottom Line: The Bottom Line used to play hockey too. He didn't turn to music, though.


To understand the vicious cycle into which Canadian musicians are birthed, it’s important to understand the mechanics of Canadian radio and television. Essentially, government regulations state that Canadian radio stations and television shows have to show a specific minimum of Canadian content that fits a specific set of criteria. Depending on where you are in the country, that minimum is usually somewhere around 30% (although in order to compete with American radio in South-western Ontario where I live, the percentage is slightly reduced). And frankly, the population of Canada dictates that it’s going to be hard to find enough bands to fill up that quota. So what usually ends up happening is that radio and Muchmusic (our MTV, basically) will latch onto one Canadian band or musician and play them endlessly. That’s how many bands have become big in Canada, but without this crutch, these bands simply aren’t able to translate themselves to an American audience where there are no regulations to help them. And even if they do become a success (in Canada or abroad), they’re sometimes simply nothing more than a mediocre band that happened to stumble on a song that makes for good radio.

Upon first seeing the music video for Canadian rocker Sam Roberts’ debut single, Brother Down, I was left with that feeling - a good song, but probably nothing more than a flash in the pan. The video received almost ridiculous airtime, serving only to confirm my belief. But then I heard the second single, Don’t Walk Away Eileen, and my interest began to pique a bit. Surprisingly, both tracks held up quite well in spite of the frequent play, but I still wasn’t quite convinced. The third single from the Canadian-release only Inhuman Condition EP, Where Have All The Good People Gone? was really what sold me, an absolute masterpiece of a song that, although fairly simplistic, has an undeniably structure and a hook that leaves the listener with the impression that Roberts has been at the music game for much longer than he really has. But it wasn’t until I saw a clip of Roberts’ live performance at the Toronto Rocks concert a few days back that I realized the guy’s potential. In only fifteen minutes, he left a bigger impression on me than half of the other afternoon acts, and the simple fact that he was able to work a crowd of which half probably had no idea who he was (that he complimented The Flaming Lips in an interview didn't hurt, either). And it was at that point that I finally folded and picked up We Were Born In A Flame. Suffice to say, it’s a record that shows not only a tremendous amount of potential, but also a youngster who has already developed an ear for the subtleties of what makes music good. In short, We Were Born In A Flame sounds more like the work of a seasoned music industry veteran than it does a twenty-something with nothing more than a Canadian release only EP already under his belt. Roberts is a genuinely talented songwriter and performer worth more than a passing glance, a suspicion that is confirmed by his full-length major label debut.

Sam Roberts wasn’t always a musician. In fact, appropriately enough, the shaggy Montrealer spent most of his youth engaging in the Canadian past time of ice hockey. Not only that, but he was apparently pretty good at what he did, budding into a promising professional player in one of the country’s many minor league systems. Unfortunately, the hockey thing didn’t work out for Roberts - but professional hockey’s loss has become the music industry’s gain, I suppose. When his hockey career floundered, Roberts picked up the violin. The violin quickly lead to the electric guitar, and it wasn’t long before Roberts had assembled a band composed mostly of his close friends. The group was featured on Muchmusic but failed to ever yield any actual finished product after moving to Los Angeles in an attempt to hit the big time. They broke up in 1998, but Roberts’ resilient side shone through, returning home to Montreal and continuing to work on new material for his own release as a solo artist. Three years of writing and recording would result in a homemade demo featuring Roberts on just about every instrument that became a major hit in the Montreal underground, and it was then that Sam finally secured a Canadian record deal with Universal Music Canada. In the span of just over a year, Sam Roberts has quickly become the next Canadian it-boy, revealing a northern hype machine that for years many had thought to be non-existent. But unlike previous “it” groups like Nickelback, there’s a good reason why Roberts has earned the title - simply because he’s deserving of it, a genuinely talented youngster who has shown a remarkable mastery over the art of songcraft.

To pigeonhole Sam Roberts into one specific genre of music would be nothing short of a grave injustice: you only need listen to the diversity of his first three singles to figure this out for yourself. One moment it’s slow, percussive, relaxed and the next is a crunchy guitar attack with overwhelmingly catchy riffs and lyrics, and the next it’s somewhere in-between the two polar opposites. And these three songs, while nicely illustrating the level of diversity, hardly account for any of his other tracks which seem to jump all over the music spectrum, embracing ideas from different genres and a variety of influences. It’s true that this is rock music, but the simple word “rock” hardly seems to describe the aural magnificence, the broad strokes Roberts paints with his instruments and the wide variety of influences from which his music is crafted. Conventional rock music hasn’t sounded this downright pretty in years, yet it’s not fluff either. His songs are sugary and infectious on the outside, but the lyrics and the musical textures illustrate Roberts’ talent as a writer.

His lyrics range from sing-a-long style love songs to angry diatribes, stories of the road, and all facets of life and love. These lyrics are almost deceptively simple, a free-flowing brand of poetry that is at times witty, at times thoughtful and poignant, but is almost never overdone (all the more impressive considering that he was more than likely raised in a French-speaking household). His music is crunchy and driven, but at the same time it is jangly and subdued, absolutely brimming with ideas and influences. Everything from the hard rock bombast of Led Zeppelin to classic jazz and blues and even funk and R&B seems to fit somewhere into the puzzle, a brand of surprisingly un-pretentious rock that has a decidedly retro feel to it. I hear strains of the Clash and a definite Beatles influence as well, but there are even moments that seem to be heavily inspired by standard classical composers and traditional Canadian music (which can be credited to his time as a violinist). And given that Roberts’ is a born and raised Canadian, there’s more than a touch of The Tragically Hip thrown in for good measure. But the single artist I hear most when I listen to anything by Sam Roberts is Bob Dylan. There are only a scant few moments when you can draw a direct correlation between the two, but simply listening to the style and structure of the songs gives the impression of Roberts as a songwriter more than an actual performer - and his music, often accentuated with just a tinge of folk, and accompanied by thoughtful lyrics, just seams to scream Dylan. That’s not to say that Roberts is nearly as adept lyrically, but he’s definitely borrowed a chapter from the Dylan songbook with his wordplay, occasional political and social rhetoric, stories complete with namedropping, raw emotion and lyrical passages filled with what can only be described as Roberts-isms.

Roberts released his debut EP, The Inhuman Condition midway through 2002, a recording only available in Canada or as in import. The album, largely based on the success of his debut single Brother Down, was about as big a hit as possible considering Roberts’ situation. The album garnered praise from critics, who were quick to point out not only his song writing itself, but also the sheer diversity of the six tracks on the album - a diversity showed off in a running time of well under thirty minutes. But more impressively, it was also a success commercially, establishing Roberts as one of the few artists able to stray the line between artist integrity and commerciality successfully. Unfortunately, that could also spell trouble for Roberts in the camps of music elitists who see themselves as being above anything that has become even marginally popular. In the United States, however, this likely won’t be a problem, and I guess that’s somewhat promising. However, for any other Canadians hanging around on this site, I need to stress that just because he’s popular doesn’t mean he’s bad - in fact, he’s quite good, a testament to his talent and song writing chops that he achieved such success in a very trend-driven industry.

When Inhuman Condition broke, Universal realized Roberts’ potential (potential profit margins, anyway) and it wasn’t long before he was back in the studio recording his first legitimate full-length major label release. This release, titled We Were Born In A Flame, was released in early June (and, unlike it’s predecessor, is available in the United States). We Were Born In A Flame is Roberts’ first real studio experience, and the album collects fourteen tracks (thirteen in the States - The Canadian Dream was left out for obvious reasons, even though it is still a great track), including re-recorded renditions of the aforementioned first three hits that propelled the Inhuman Condition EP. And much like Roberts’ demos and his EP, the multi-talented musician - in addition to writing and arranging all of the songs - plays nearly all of the instruments on each of the tracks (with the exception of the drums and some keyboard and horn overdubs added for texture). We Were Born In A Flame essentially finds Roberts’ continuing what he started on his EP, blending styles and embracing diversity to craft a set of excellent songs. There’s not a tremendous amount of lyrical or musical growth - but you can hardly blame him considering that most of these songs were written while Roberts was still a struggling underground indie rock act.

Many musicians - even some of the more experienced major label acts - are infatuated with the idea of diversity in their music go all out to achieve it, but often completely miss the point. They embrace diversity, but in the process, completely abandon any sort of cohesion that allows the music to flow as one whole collection. It’s remarkable that Roberts hasn’t yet fallen into this trap, because We Were Born In A Flame, like it’s precursor, completely jumps back and forth between influences, musical ideas and stylistic norms. But at the same time, We Were Born In A Flame is surprisingly cohesive, with Roberts’ lyrical and musical style creating an unique overall vibe that is plainly audible from start to finish. It’s a vibe that’s hard to explain, but We Were Born In A Flame does have a decidedly retro feel to it, as well as interesting folk undertones that seem to exist even during some of the tracks that really have no business being associated with folk. It’s not a perfect record by far, but it’s a majestic one, and a totally fascinating one. It sounds almost as if the sixties and seventies are virtually alive and breathing within every note that he plays. Somehow, though, he manages to sound retro without sounding like a tribute band or a derivative and desperate plea to return to that time frame (another thing that many artists have a difficult time with). The Bob Dylan connection is still an obvious one, both in the lyrics, the style and the actual music of a handful of tracks, but I can’t even begin to count the number of groups that seem to have had some effect on Roberts’ writing process, everything from a Byrds-y jangle to a Doors-influenced use of the reed organ, a touch of Californian indie rock and a wealth of groups from the British Invasion. Like I said though, it doesn’t become a jumble, as Roberts has learned how to sort these ideas and use them only when appropriate for a song.

There are only a few all-out rock songs on We Were Born In A Flame, most notable of which are Roberts’ second and third single. These tracks feature crisp, moderately distorted guitar parts, but nothing more heavy than that. On most of the other songs, however, he takes one of two routes - the first being a jangly sort-of slightly shaded rock played on hollow body guitars (mostly Rickenbackers) to achieve a bit of a Beatle-y, British Invasion kind of song. The second is simply an acoustic guitar, usually strummed chordings with a hint of his fingers as they slide up and down the strings barely eking through onto the recording. In either case, Roberts usually adds a second guitar playing a countermelody, often combining acoustic with electric guitars or simply playing something that gives the sense of melodies fighting with one another for the listener’s attention. His bass parts are, for the most part, very simple, serving as a guide to the song’s tempo and to give the whole song an added bit of low-end oomph. George Donoso plays drums on all but one track, a talented if somewhat unspectacular musician more than capable of keeping up with and fitting into Roberts’ arrangements without sounding to loud or too dull. From there, Roberts adds a final touch, usually consisting of some restrained horn accompaniment, a touch of violin (played by Roberts, of course), or some shading using a reed organ (possibly the reason why the whole affair seems to have that retro vibe). Lyrically, Sam shows that Dylan inspiration, passages filled essentially with a slice of life. Love, loss, and death are all discussed on some level, as are some story-like compositions and a constant underlying social commentary. Both lyrically and musically, too, Roberts seems to draw some inspiration from uniquely Canadian aspects of life, referencing locations, concepts and childhood memories directly linked to our country - everything from equating a woman’s hair to the Canadian highway to singing a verse in French on No Sleep or a mention of collecting hockey cards as a child. This influence is an effective one, and it helps to connect with him on a more personal and less cerebral level, but it may be this very factor that will prevent him from achieving any measure of notoriety in the United States.

We Were Born In A Flame opens on a high note (that isn’t to say there aren’t many of these, because this is just but one in a series) with Hard Road, a winding acoustic track alternating chords with picked riff, gradually growing and transforming as the song continues. While on the surface a tried and true “life on the road” type of song, on some level, it seems to embrace the idea that life can be difficult, whatever road you happen. At the same time, though, it can be rewarding. Roberts’ distinct yet indescribable voice is absolutely perfect for the track, not too pretty to make the song overly glossy, just gruff enough to give it a bit of an edge. From there (on the Canadian version, anyways, as there are two different track listings for the record depending on country), the album moves fluidly into the first of the three re-recordings, a slightly more succinct reading of Where Have All The Good People Gone?, opening with a softly strummed acoustic guitar that is quickly joined by an electric guitar and a simple hard-rock drum beat. "The Milky Way has gone a little sour," Roberts sings, wondering out loud the moral and social decay of society through a series of loosely intertwining anecdotes and personal observations. Complete with a great hook that draws on both the two guitars and Roberts’ voice to draw in the listener, it’s my favourite cut from the record. Of the re-recordings, though, it’s probably the weakest, lacking the original version’s middle section that reaches a dead halt and crumbles before gradually building back up and exploding again into the main medley.

Brother Down is the second re-record, an acoustic folk-y style sing along that seems to draw from hip-hop as well as jazz and the aforementioned folk. Heavy on natural sounding instruments, it’s built almost entirely on a simple acoustic riff and bongo, tribal drumming. The only real difference between the two versions is that this one slightly more emphasizes that drum beat, although I’m torn on whether it makes the track more effective or not. Dead End is about the most Dylan-esque of the cuts on We Were Born In A Flame, a honky-tonk, heavily rhythmic number that reminds me a bit of Dylan’s early protest songs. Taj Mahal, on the other hand, is a lush and gorgeous ode to the Beatles, with a heavy use of the piano, a melody straight out of Abbey Road and a voice that intermittently seems to recall Paul McCartney. A beautiful violin solo and another soaring solo guitar excursion are simply pretty sounding, adding to a song that may very well be one of the best ballads of the past several years.

Every Part Of Me is a very shimmering and jangling number that reminds me of the Smiths, the end of each lyrics accentuated by a horn, while The Canadian Dream finds a way to describe Canada absolutely beautifully in few words, complete with a less than subtle ode to socialism found in the simple song’s chorus. Laidback and catchy, it just seems to capture the mood of the country perfectly, while also seeming like a subtle bit of criticism towards it. On The Run is a thumping number that reminds me a bit of the Clash at times, Roberts singing in a nasally voice. Don’t Walk Away Eileen easily earns the title of the best song written about a character named Eileen (not that the competition was particularly fierce), a driving, raucous guitar rocker that is infinitely singable and complete with an absolutely masterful hook. This particular re-record sound essentially the same as the original, retaining the fury and pure energy of the first reading. No Sleep, sung partly in French, has a great bluesy tempo to it, shaped mostly by a laidback organ groove accentuated by the occasional guitar lick, and This Wreck Of A Life is another song that seems to be paying tribute to the Beatles, a melody that reminds me of a blend of Because and Happiness Is A Warm Gun.

On We Were Born In A Flame, Sam Roberts displays his talent as a passionate songwriter and performer for all too see. It’s filled with great songs that seem to defy the conventions of music, embracing a wide variety of influences and blending them to create something that sounds genuinely interesting. Roberts’ arrangements are sublime; soaring, majestic songs that are almost indescribably beautiful. There are a few moments where the musician stumbles - the closer Paranoia seems to lack any real direction or purpose (despite a few moments of sheer musical bliss found within it at times) - but for the most part, he’s filled this album with songs that would make just about any musician - even the most seasoned of veterans) proud, textured numbers filled with great hooks and surreal melodies, fascinating lyrics and great instrumental work. If Inhuman Condition was an introduction to Sam Roberts’ abilities as a musician, We Were Born In A Flame is a confirmation of them. It’s too bad, though, that Roberts will likely find himself in the same boat as bands like the Tragically Hip, Canadian artists on the fringe of finding an American audience but without enough exposure or promotion to completely reach the States. Whether or not he does find that success in the south, I still urge you to check out his full-length debut, simply because it’s a collection of great songs written and recorded by a great young talent in the music industry.


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