Thee Speaking Canaries

Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged


“Our War on Cool Pt. 2” is the title of a song on the new Thee Speaking Canaries record as well as a phrase that succinctly sums up what their sophomore LP is all about. Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged, one of the most passionate records released this year, is a full frontal assault on everything that’s currently considered cool by the indie-rock cognoscenti.

The Canaries are a power trio composed of members from three Pittsburgh-area bands. Guitarist and vocalist Damon Che plays with Don Caballero, bassist Karl Hendricks heads the Karl Hendricks Trio, and drummer Noah Leger is on loan from Hurl. But despite their solid alternative-rock pedigree, the Canaries clearly aren’t interested in aping what’s hip in indieville.

For one thing, the Canaries’ music displays all the wrong influences. Alternative rockers periodically rediscover unjustly neglected artists whose music subsequently influences the scene. Fifteen years ago, the music of the Velvet Underground was rediscovered and suddenly influenced innumerable bands. More recent rediscoveries include Big Star and Scott Walker. Currently, early 70s German art rockers like Can, Faust, and Neu are as de rigueur as analog synthesizers. But Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged bears the distinct imprint of some decidedly uncool bands. The Canaries’ loud, bristling guitar rock has little in common with the discordant, distorted power pop of indie-rock peers like Superchunk or the Archers of Loaf. Rather, it’s derived from the classic, tuneful hard rock of early Van Halen and Alice Cooper. In fact, the Canaries lovingly cover the former’s “Secrets” and “Gone Bad.” They’re also fond of stretching their tunes into long kinetic jams that recall Cream in its heyday (one of their medleys quotes the Cream staple “I’m So Glad”). The Canaries’ playing, though, is far more lithe and dynamic than that of their sometimes lumbering 60s forebears.

Another sign of the Canaries’ war on cool is that Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged is devoid of irony, the dominant mode of expression in indie rock. The genre is bloated with graduate-student-turned-guitar-player types who deliberately ridiculed and subverted the whole idea of rock ‘n’ roll with half-assed, tongue-in-cheek performances. But the essence of real rock music eludes them. Real rock music is about simpleminded, rabid, head-banging intensity–not smirking, self-absorbed cleverness. That’s why the Stooges were a great rock band and Pavement isn’t.

The Canaries don’t play at being a rock band; they’re the real thing. They throw themselves into their music with complete ferocity, whipping up an aural maelstrom on their new album that’s comparable with the Who’s legendary Live at Leeds. Leger’s drum kit sounds like it’s being pummeled with mortar shells beneath the metallic surf of his cymbals. And Hendricks lays out wildly propulsive bass lines that anchor and inspire Che’s scalding, occasionally wayward guitar excursions. The record is filled with some of the most sincere and committed rock music I’ve heard in a long time.

The intensity of the Canaries’ playing is matched by their virtuosity. And that virtuosity is yet another transgression against indie-rock coolness. Ever since the punk revolution, there has been an alternative-rock bias against anything that smacks of professionalism or technical polish. As a result, college radio is filled with music that wallows in deliberately sloppy musicianship, tuneless singing, and dime-store production. There’s nothing wrong with amateurism. When it’s part of a sincere desire to play, it’s often the wellspring for real innovation. But when it becomes self-conscious and dogmatic, it’s no less pretentious or ridiculous than the symphonic delusions of an ELO or ELP.

The Canaries possess considerable instrumental prowess, and they aren’t timid about showing it. Throughout Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged they display a remarkably accomplished, confident musicianship. Che’s singing is raw and untutored, but always in tune. Hendricks and Leger’s rhythm support creates a consistently buoyant energy with a jazzlike merging of abandon and deft control. But the band’s virtuosity is never an end in itself; it always elevates the musical excitement.

Twenty years after its first incarnation, art rock is making a comeback. Numerous bands now incorporate minimalist drones, pure noise, and other avant-garde extrapolations into their music. Chicago is home to a number of such bands–Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, and Gastr del Sol, to name a few. While all of this experimentation is great, it can contribute to the kind of disdain toward four-beat, three-chord rock that plagued the mid-70s.

The Canaries are something of an anomaly in the indie scene because they dish out straight-ahead rock. Spacey synthesizer burbling, lethargic drones, fractured song structures, and free-form cacophony are absent in their music. Though it’s little more than verse-chorus-verse, A Major power-trio bashing, the Canaries deliver their rock with such over-the-top energy and conviction that it transcends and revitalizes a seemingly depleted style.

From the first note of its opening cut, Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged is unadulterated, full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll–with no ulterior motives. The music’s sole aim is to achieve that blissed-out sense of exhilaration that’s been the hallmark of great rock since its birth. This record is a thundering first salvo in the war on cool.