Review by Jackie Stanley
Crickets and intimate acoustic guitar ease you into the polarizing sonic world of Ben Andress and company before giving way to way to “Kim Mitchell’s Patio Lanterns.” The radio ready second track covers all the Canadian alt-rock bases: that 80’s Kim Mitchell reference (dude, that song was nominated for a Juno award) and a distinctive vocal style in a singalong-ready ditty with a solid rhythm section. The band’s sturdiness balances and augments Andress’ demented Gordon Gano vocal style and elevates his solo acoustic lamentations to a sonic no man’s land. Weed-induced paranoia saturates the first third of the album, culminating in the refrain, “could you tell a lie? Could you tell I lied? There was a time in my life I would lay awake and wonder if there were hidden cameras in my smoke detectors watching my moves, detecting my lies.”
Like many a jaded, aging pothead musician, though, Andress enters the next phase in life with the acceptance of just how goddamn unimportant he is. Not worth surveilling, perhaps, but The Smile Case has something vital to offer. Its relevance creeps up quickly, shaking you by the shoulders and ensuring you haven’t lost interest on the lovely track “The Going Is Good.” The choice to include a traditionally attractive guest harmony conveys the song’s more subtle emotional intent more gently than Andress’ aggressive lead vocal could have done alone. A smattering of Canadian rock musicians keep the record from feeling too introspective or self-serving – most storytellers’ worst fear.
The record works equally well as background bar rock and a deeply personal encapsulation of a life spent in the dingiest of bars, bolstering the hardest working bands in town with a sneering, Scotchguard-snorting, early-Ween sense of humour. It is like eavesdropping on the band in the next room of your rehearsal space. You get it despite having no clue who these dudes are, or what their backstory is. They’re telling an important part of underground Canadian rock history through their very specific lens. “I take a drag and realize that you’re a drag and I just want to go home”, could have been penned by every bartender, show promoter, touring band, or barstool regular who ever hocked a loogie on a sidewalk at 1:00 am while having their ear talked off by an energy vampire. Five steps from their own door, staring at it like there’s a moat between them, yet glued to the pavement. Committed. Nose to the grindstone. Determined to make it to the end of the night, pay others or get paid, then pass out on the couch upstairs mid-morning, ready to do it all over again. “Pill Sick’s” death metal roar, punk gang vocals and blunt lyrics conjure a post-surgery, unapologetically doped up Terry and Deaner giggling their way into a Shoppers Drug Mart.
The Smile Case has CULT FOLLOWING written all over it, and the album is short and blunt, leaving it impossible to overstay its welcome.