The Tragically Hip Albums
There are many theories as to where the band got their name- it was either from an Elvis Costello song off of 1980’s Get Happy or form the Michael Nesmith Comedy Show (the band is quoted in saying the latter option). Wherever it is from, it is a great name for a great band. When people ask what this band sounds like, I can only say one thing: rock ‘n roll. Really, just pure rock music done in a very original way that never gets old or stale and is consistently great. There is a question of why the band is not more well known in the USA, but are popular favorites in their native Canada. It is bewildering, because this band is the perfect candidate for the radio charts: accessible rock music that is intelligent and challenging in its own way. Did I mention that Gordon Downie, the frontman/lyricist is my favorite of all time? Well he is, I love the way he writes songs. Abstract like Gordon Lightfoot or Leonard Cohen, but easy to like as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are. Guitarists Langlois and Baker play off each other very well, and the rhythm section of Fay and Sinclair is often enchanting and never misses a beat. They have stayed together with no member changes in over twenty years, until Downie’s recent death in 2018 of a brain tumor at only age 53. One of the smartest and most charismatic rock n’ roll bands ever to grace the stage. Consider them a perfect mix of REM and The Rolling Stones, consider them the Canadian version of Pearl Jam, consider them an experimental version of arena rock of the 1980’s, whatever works for you.
Gordon Downie – Vocals
Paul Langlois – Rhythm Guitar
Bobby Baker – Lead Guitar
Gord Sincliar – Bass
Johnny Fay – Drums
R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, The Band, CCR, Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson
1989 – (5 / 5) – Up to Here
1991 – (3.5 / 5) – Road Apples
1992 – (5 / 5)+ – Fully Completely
1994 – (5 / 5) – Day for Night
1996 – (4 / 5) – Trouble in the Henhouse
1998 – (3.5 / 5) – Phantom Power
2000 – (4.5 / 5) – Music @ Work
2002 – (2.5 / 5) – In Violet Light
2004 – (4 / 5) – In Between Evolution
2007 – (2 / 5) – World Container
2016 – (3.5 / 5) – Man Machine
Up to Here – (5 / 5)
The Hip had a self-titled EP before this, but this is their first full length. On this record, the Tragically Hip are the apex of country tinged rock and roll. A little bit o’ blues, little bit o’ acoustic guitar, and a lot of straight up hard rock grooves and solos! If this doesn’t sound like your kinda music, I urge you to give it a chance anyways, especially if you are a fan of Flying Burrito Brothers or Gordon Lightfoot (who I’m sure The Hip loved). The album starts of almost too forceful with “Blow at High Dough”, which is a good song, but nowhere near this band’s best as it is often hyped. Luckily through the journey of word playing “I’ll Believe in You”, the foreshadowing “New Orleans is Sinking”, the emotional hard rock of “She Didn’t Know” and “Every Time You Go”, and the swampy CCR homage “Trickle Down”, the listener is transported to the band’s personal world of learning lessons through emotional wreckage.
I must stress the importance of two of my favorite songs of all time though. “Another Midnight” is a genius, jangly tune that defines the flowing pop song. Gordon Downie’s story of a small town romance is also storytelling at it’s best, and for a man who is not always into songs that tell stories, I wanna say Downie’s are the only ones I ever really care to listen to. “Boots or Hearts” is my all-time favorite TH song though, and it is an acoustic glory of wonderment, and the lyrics are full of conundrums. “Fingers and toes/ forty things we share/ forty-one if you include the fact that we don’t care.” The emotion these men bring to a song that is only 3 chords, G-C-D, is amazing! Up To Here is a confident and consistent record debut, and “Opiated” is the perfect closer to a near-perfect album, a one that begins the history of one of rock n’ roll’s truly great bands.
Greatest Songs: Boots or Hearts, Another Midnight, Trickle Down, New Orleans is Sinking
Road Apples – (3.5 / 5)
Road Apples continues in the same style as Up to Here, but the country rock styling’s are not quite as effective the second time around. There are plenty of good songs and while they may pale in comparison to Up to Here’s bombast of country rock, that is in comparison to a masterwork. The album is hardly a failure and it’s a good more laid-back listen. The great songs worth rave about: “Twist My Arm” is one of their best rockers; the passionate “Cordelia” and the breakdown in the bridge of “Three Pistols” makes the overly hard rock vocal Downie tries work for a couple of songs; “The Last of the Unplucked Gems” is a neat little ditty that stays in your head after the album is over, making it a great album closer if little else more.
The other songs are nothing much to rave about (for example the sappy “Long Time Running” could be done by any bar band), unlike Up to Here where the album tracks matched the hits. Mild successes include “Luxury”, “Bring It Back”, and the moody riff laden “Fight”. “Little Bones” is a solid rocking opener, but lacking a little in what makes the band truly gel. What should be said about Road Apples, is that the band has obtained a harder ‘edge’ that led them away from country music and more towards arena rock, marking the album as more of a transition than an outright failure. That makes it an oddity, and something fans of the band would still want to collect.
Greatest Songs: Twist My Arm, Three Pistols, Cordelia, Last of the Unpicked Gem
Fully Completely – (5 / 5)+
If you value Trevor Evans-Young’s opinion, take my word for it that Fully Completely is one of the greatest records ever made. Combining the country tinge of the last two albums with an 1980’s style production and a perfect batch of twelve songs, Fully Completely lives up to its title. Some of the more brutal tones from Road Apples appears on songs like the heavy metal “The Wherewithal” and “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, the latter with its tale of a madman hiding a dead body. Gordon Downie’s lyrics have never been better- they are awkward pleasantries of the greatest kind, shown in “At the Hundredth Meridian” with extra insightful lyrics such as “driving down a corduroy road/ wheat standing shoulder high/ at the 100th meridian / where the great plains begin!” So descriptive is Downie when talking about randomness, that I believe his masterpiece of words is none other than album closer “Elderado”, which interweaves great analogies with life lessons (“tired of loving /recovering loving / recovering”). The topics of songs are also something to note, because who else would sing about pigeon cameras, the hundredth meridian, hockey heroes of lore, the meaning of life, and cold wind blowing over your private parts? No one so effectively in my opinion, making Gordon Downie a contender for best lyricist ever.
The music is one thing that has evolved here. The Tragically Hip had the option of being forever labled as country rockers (even though they were great at it) or changing their sound like all great bands must in order to stay relevant. Their 3rd full album shows them establishing trademarks for their sound, such as guitar soloing at the end of songs longer than the usual “bridge section”, a gorgeous example being the melodic solo on “Pigeon Camera”, while also changing up structure very subtly on other songs. The guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois should be commended for making each guitar riff intercut with the others, so subsequent listenings are still entertaining even on songs that are standard verse-chorus-verse three times over. I have no negative criticisms of this record, but if I had to pick a least favorite song it would be “Fully Completely” which can be emotionally over loading at times.
This record gave the band the ominous “sounds like R.E.M.” tag, and on first listen it does, but there are obvious things (two dueling guitars, the unique vocals of Downie, sense of Canadian pride) that set the two bands apart. But regardless of any knocks against being sound alikes, few bands could pull off the complexity of a rock song like “Lionized” so well, as the song glides along the railroad tracks of rock history in such a beautiful way. Those all great bands who manage to make a perfect record, Fully Completely is a watermark of how rock n’ roll should be done. It is not experimental or ambitious per se, but you won’t hear any records more amazingly consistent and heartfelt. Sometimes that is all you need in a record, or better yet- all that is needed. One doesn’t hear this record and feel something is missing, but rather something is ‘complete’. I cannot recommend a better experience in listening to an album.
Greatest Songs: all of them really, but if I have to pick: Elderado, Lionized, Pigeon Camera, Courage
Day for Night – (5 / 5)
….and out of the muck, comes an album so dark and absorbing, you’ll have to hold on to not get sucked in to its void. The Tragically Hip have reinvented themselves and removed any trace of dated production quality (thank producer Mark Brown for that, a master sculptor of moods that helmed this as well as REM’s Automatic for the People). The album is named for Francois Truffaut’s movie, about making movies. That might intend that there was some kind of backstage drama going on for the band at the time, or maybe it just means stands for the toll it takes on the psyche when making great albums (which I’m sure it is) and this band would know (this marvelous record is just their 4th album, and two other masterworks preceded it, Up to Here and Fully Completely). The Hip entertain the idea of making this a nearly double album, at about 59 minutes. Praise is also due to drummer Johnny Fay for rocking the hell out of this album, especially on blistering rockers like “Daredevil” and “Fire in the Hole”; to listen to Fay on this record is to listen to a masterclass on drumming.
The band uses previous Tragically Hip songs “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” and “Opiated” as templates for their sound here, which is as dark and wild as staring into the abyss. The atmosphere works on the slower, more simplistic songs: the dynamic “Yawning or Snarling”, groove based “So Hard Done By” which works thanks to the interplay of the bands five members, and atmospheric chug of “Thugs”. It works on the acoustic ballad “Scared” as well as “Titanic Terrarium”, a notable departure for the group with its upbeat bounce and electronic background. It works on hard rockers like “Grace, Too” (an astonishing hard rock opener), the tricky “Inevitability of Death” (perhaps my favorite song, what wordplay!), and “An Inch An Hour” which is actually mathematically sound. With the former song, Downie covers topics no other band would, where he screams “We don’t go to hell / memories of us do / but if you go to hell / I’ll still remember you.” Clever also, the way the album closer “Impossibilium” (another case of Downie creating his own language) starts with the end of “Emergency”. Last but not least, I will say again how good the guitar solos are at the end of some of these songs, always entertaining, keep it up Langlois and Baker!
“Nautical Disaster” is a truly unique chapter in rock n roll, the concept itself is fairly revolutionary that the entire song is turned on its head from being the thoughts of a soldier during Canada’s failed invasion of Nazi occupied France in WW2, when the whole thing turns out to be a letter written to a soldier’s wife named Susan during the insanity of a beach invasion. Whether or not you are a lyrics or song-story person, this song is a masterpiece for sure of emotion and melding words to music. Yet again, Downie’s lyrics truly set the band apart. Most of the songs on Day For Night also build to an emotional crescendo, a new style for the band, but to say it ‘works’ is an understatement of the highest order.
If the album is not as tight as the previous record Fully Completely, it is perhaps because it is a couple of tracks too long. But really, which songs would you take out? By adding a denser aura to their amazing batch of 14 songs, The Tragically Hip have made three awe inspiring albums in just five years. If they would have chosen to stop their career here, it would have been alright, as that is more than 99% of rock bands do. But no, they pressed on after a well-earned two-year break, and kept going. Day for Night is, like Fully Completely, a true masterpiece, and which one is more essential is personal preference. Maybe in time, people will view these albums as the works of art they are, but the fact is in the U.S.A. at least, this band is little known and hardly ever critically praised. If you are reading this, I implore you to enrich your life with this band. Consider them a perfect mix of REM and The Rolling Stones, consider them the Canadian version of Pearl Jam, consider them an experimental version of arena rock of the 1980’s, whatever works for you.
Greatest Songs: Inevitability of Death, Grace Too, Nautical Disaster, Greasy Jungle, So Hard Done By
Trouble at the Henhouse – (4 / 5)
The Hip are back, with their fifth studio record, and it begins as good as ever! The first four songs show the band in a typical rocking form, with songs that build to anthemic choruses like “Springtime in Vienna” with its “live to survive of paradoxes” line, one of my favorite Hip lines ever. Also a builder is “Ahead by a Century”, which starts as an acoustic ditty, but explodes into a rocker very heartfelt and meaningful. The Tragically Hip are ahead honestly, and this song sets the theme for the rest of this futuristic record. “Gift Shop” has harmonies that sound like an alien spaceship landing. Listen to songs like “Butts Wigglin” and “700 ft. Ceiling” which sound nothing like anything else any other band has done to date, using odd sound effects and Gordon Downie taking a more beatnik approach to his style. “Flamenco” and “Put it Off” are pretty odd too, though successful in a different way by building an atmosphere instead of a catchy melody.
The Hip trips every once in a while on here, with songs like “Sherpa” and “Apartment song”, the latter of which is their worst song yet. These songs don’t diminish the ‘super capacity to love’ too badly, and are often ‘mildly enjoyable’ or ‘not too annoying’, one or the other. The bouncy “Coconut Cream”, the anthemic “Don’t Wake Daddy” (another exploding chorus) and the pensive ballad “Let’s Stay Engaged” are good, solid songs but the Hip have done better elsewhere. Some reviews of Trouble at the Henhouse say it is horrible which is totally off base, and others state it is a masterwork which is overselling it a bit. It is more like the bands experimental record, where they try many new things with their sound, but they can’t seem to totally go for a new sound, which gives this record an awkward feel. Downie actually sums what I just said up in the last song when he states, “I had a passion to experiment / but i was torn.”
Greatest Songs: Springtime in Vienna, 700 Ft. Ceiling, Ahead By a Century, Butts Wigglin
Phantom Power – (3 / 5)
A favorite among fans of the band. It starts off with “Poets” which is a great, hypocrite dissing song, but it is almost Hip-by-numbers at this point. Follow up song “Something On” is a good, emotional rocker. The underrated “Save the Planet” and the crowd pleasing “Bobcaygeon” would be the reasons to get this record, the latter of which is probably the most famous tune by the band because it is quintessentially Canadian. “Thompson Girl” and “Membership” ain’t half bad, but by this point in the bands career, we expect better songs. The last half of the record is not as memorable, and I can’t help but feel the band might have overextended itself with the release of a live album (Live Between Us) released right before this one in the same year. “Escape is at Hand for the Traveling Man” and “Fireworks” are also rather popular tunes by the group but they have never grabbed my attention; hell the latter should just be called “another song with a line about hockey in it.” Maybe that is a lot of people’s problem with this band: they have such a traditional rock sound that when it is turned on its head, it can sound like a one-way trip to generic ROCKNROLL city. On their first five records, this was never the case, but on Phantom Power they chose to make an album before they have an albums worth of good songs.
Greatest Songs: Bobcaygeon, Poets, Save the Planet
Music @ Work – (4.5 / 5)
Music should be a pleasant experience. Whether it is “life changing” is all in the way you look at it. Music @ Work is a laid back record and doesn’t want to change the Tragically Hip’s legacy except to add more great songs. The album starts off three of the best tunes the band ever did in three very different styles: the melodic hard rock the title track “Music At Work” where Downie has some great advice “avoid trends and clichés” and he says it in such a casual way; the metallic grind of “Tiger the Lion” with its lyrical reference to John Cage and its easily the best metal song the band has attempted yet; laid back melodic folk-rock with “Lake Fever” that could easily be a top 40 hit. The record is pleasant sounding all the way through, and the songs employ enough tricks that they are always interesting: the campfire/family feel of “Stay”, odd AOR chug of “The Completists”, mysterious acoustics of “The Bear”, and so on.
The second half of the record is just as magnificent as the first and the band avoids the later album slumps of the previous couple of records. Could the album be a little shorter? Yeah, one or two songs could have been cut (“Wild Mountain Honey” and “Freak Turbulence” leap to my mind). But who is complaining with songs this well written and executed? This is The Tragically Hip exploring their limitations of their sound as a hard rock band (“The Bastard”, “Train Overnight”), a laid back folky band (female background vocals on “Toronto #4”, “As I Wind Down the Pines”), an experimental band (“The Completists” “Sharks” which harks back to the sound of Day For Night), but all in all just a rock band. It could be looked at as showing the most sides ogf the band well, like English Settlement did for XTC, Abbey Road did for The Beatles, Mellon Collie for the Smashing Pumpkins, Vitalogy did for Pearl Jam. If you are already a loyal Hip fan, you’ll love that the 7th studio record is this great. If you’re not yet a Hip fan, this may be their most accessible release. Relax, rock out and enjoy, ’cause it’s one of their best records.
Greatest Songs: Lake Fever, Tiger the Lion, Sharks, The Bear, The Bastard
In Violet Light – (2.5 / 5)
In Violet Light is the first Tragically Hip record I would dare call average. Again, the band shows signs of fatigue by making too many records. Exceptions are “The Darkest One” which was a neat single; “It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken” and “The Dire Wolf” are easily the only two great songs, and “Silver Jet” which is good here, but it’s way stronger as a live track. Really, with songs like “The Dark Canuck” the band goes back in time and tries to get some kind of Day for Night vibe going on again, but the magic is not there. This is a pale imitation of a great band, and this vampire record has sucked all interest out of me.
Greatest Songs: The Darkest One, The Dire Wolf, It’s a good Life if You Don’t Weaken