Fearless or Clueless: “60/40” Bands and a Farewell to The Tragically Hip

“Either it’ll move me, or it’ll move right through me.” - Gordon Downie
Last weekend, The Tragically Hip played what is likely to be their final concert ever, in their hometown of Kingston, ON. Their lead singer, Gordon Downie, has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer. His condition is terminal. As band names go, “The Tragically Hip” is about as catchy as it gets. If you live south of the 49th parallel you might be realizing that you’ve heard the name but not the music. And that may be for the best because not everybody can metabolize a 60/40 band. Not everybody is willing to sift through 60% of their generally boring and sometimes annoying back catalogue for those truly original bits of illuminating alt-rock scattered through their history (and clumped heavily in their mid-nineties albums). A 60/40 band is like a batter in baseball who never gets a base hit. They only strike out or hit homeruns. And The Hip are one of my all time favorites. ~~~~ Tom Waits. A lot of musicians love him. But check him out on Spotify and you’re likely to find a gravel-bound voice barking strange, atonal dirges. And sometimes, that’s really all Waits is doing. However, enough research will reveal that he can also transport you to a boozy noir carnival full vivid language and genuine emotion. Defending Tom Waits to non-vinyl-collectors is an intramural sport for some. But it doesn't make you disloyal to obsess over portions of a back catalogue while admitting the rest is downright bad. It makes you an intellectually honest fan. A 60/40 fan. 60/40 bands either don’t know what they do best, or can’t be bothered to give a fuck. Their catalogue tends to be stylistically disparate. Sometimes they experiment with different phases. Sometimes they do their best work early on, and then fail to recreate initial success. Weezer is a 60/40 band (although their swill-to-genius ratio may be sliding closer to 80/20 with each unfortunate post-Pinkerton album). Less commonly, a band can start out mediocre but develop a more mature sound over time. Deftones comes to mind, although they were never quite as bad as their early nu-metal peers, nor does their later, more complex work seem to offer the incredible diamonds in the rough usually boasted by a 60/40 band’s 40%. To qualify as true 60/40, the 60% has to be real garbage, and the remaining 40% has to be life-changingly awesome. Often, 60/40 bands are mistakenly seen as “love em or hate em” bands. You may hate Sublime, or you may love them but niether opinion is due to a lack of reasearch. It means you either love the idea of Jimmy Buffet starting a ska band or you hate it. The music is pretty much the same as the idea of the music. Sublime delivers exactly what it sets out to deliver, and everybody who thinks they love or hate their music is correct. Then there’s Primus. Primus may have a cult following while sounding laughably bad to anyone not in the cult. But both devotion and aesthetic recoil are the result of superficial investigation. Psychedelic funk-metal is certainly a niche sub-genre, but it’s time for a new paradigm of post-koolaid pragmatism. I wrote in Paste about how every Primus album has a different genre because Primus is a different band every five years. I consider myself a Primus fan, but I can also admit that I’ve come to love a lot of their tracks--almost some entire albums--merely from spending time with them during formative, pre-iPod college years. Standing on merit alone, their best tracks could fit on a double disc. It’d be two hours of sensual phase-shifted mania and intricate polyrhythms riding on your cerebral cortex. While the remaining four hours might never be heard again because it all sounds like less coherent versions of the South Park theme. The gulph in quality between their best and their worst is fascinatingly large, and that spirit of experimentation--whether it be fearlessness or cluelessness--is necessary for brain-unlocking achievements like “American Life”, “Southbound Pachyderm”, and “My Friend Fats”. The most frustrating 60/40 band is Phish. I have never met a single person who has a reasonable and informed perspective on Phish. The love-or-hate fallacy is so compelling to casual samplers and deep divers alike that it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy blinding virtually everyone on the planet from the reality that Phish has created some of the worst music ever, as well as a small handful of jazz-fusion and classic-rock masterpieces. When I refer to some of the worst music ever, I’m referring to most of Phish’s music, especially live bootlegs. When I refer to "masterpieces", I’m mostly speaking about single tracks scattered amongst otherwise unlistenable albums, as though they were star-coins in Mario Galaxy spread around the universe—and also their 1996 studio record Billy Breathes, front to back. Now that I’ve alienated virtually any reader except the six of you who have stumbled upon this weird little secret in your attempt to be thorough, you may be asking: why doen’t Phish or their record label solve the problem by curating a best-of? Because, friend, the people who hate Phish don’t hate specific tracks or the fanatical mythologizing of their live setlists, they hate the idea of Phish, as well as the type of people who worship them. The “good songs” aren’t going to sound any different to these folks because disgust for the general concept of Phish has led to what Harvard professor Dan Gilbert might call “hedonic adaptation”. Psychologists have found your brain can adapt to permanently love or hate otherwise purely aesthetic items arbitrarily based on life situations. To a graphic designer in Williamsburg, Trey Anastasio’s voice and the sound of a noodly guitar in a major key are simply a vessel of context with a repulsive connotation, regardless of any song’s particular character. Same problem from the opposite end with Phish fans. If you are seeing Phish live, in the middle of an 18-minute version of anything off A Picture of Nectar other than “Stash”, and you’re actually enjoying yourself… you’re literally on drugs. Even if you think you’re sober. There’s a sub-community of Phish fans called the Phellowship who pride themselves on staying off drugs and alcohol. But that doesn't mean these substance-free obsessives aren’t high on their narcotic exuberance in worshipping at the altar of Phish. Fanatics need to love every minute of that show, just the same as the haters need to seperate themselves from crunchy granola jam bands at all costs. It’s a matter of identity politics, and, for whatever reason, everyone interprets their music experiences in a way that reinforces their view of themself. To my fellow Star Wars fanatics: Can you honestly tell me that there wasn’t a 45-minute window during the summer of 1999 right after you saw Phantom Menace during which you hadn’t yet realized that it sucked? You had just seen young Obi-Wan slicing and dicing on the big screen! Generally speaking, what else can you ask out of life? This glow of gratitude and tribalist glee is the same thing Phish fans of all intoxication levels are feeling while they’re having the time of their life listening to really bad music. I saw them live 10 years ago. I wanted to enjoy it, but I didn’t need to enjoy it. And thank Christ for that, because it sucked ass. It’s no wonder Phish-heads always talk about “nuggets,” because they have to gold-sift through shit concerts for the two or three melodic moments that are actually transcendent at a sonic level, so they can briefly feel authentic in their elevated devotion. If you ever find yourself feeling like a fraudulent Phish fan, repeat after me: “Some of Phish’s music is great, but usually it sounds unrehearsed and merely coasts lazily on the strength of other compositional moments when their intentional emergence of order from chaos genuinely elicits emotions of ecstatic bliss similar to the music of George Gershwin or King Crimson.” Got all that? It can be your next tattoo. But those rare moments of success are the magic of 60/40 bands, and as annoying as Phish usually sounds, I don’t begrudge the hours of listening I’ll never get back in return for the first time I heard “Divided Sky” come in for a landing, or wrote a short film in my head to the climax of Billy Breathes. Regardless of whether those moments come from fearless experimentation, lightning in a bottle, or virtuosic heads-up-own-asses... certain bands simply have the creative currency to suck most of the time while occasionally dazzling for the benefit of whoever’s still listening. Being a 60/40 fan means avoiding both the cult and the snark, judging everything you hear based on the melodic story it tells and the emotions it evokes. ~~~~ The Tragically Hip are a 60/40 band. Most of the time, they’re trying to be either alt-country beatniks or Canada’s historian-laureate blues-rockers. Gordon Downey’s voice wails over guitar riffs in a sometimes grating tenor. Honestly, I couldn’t even finish any of their last three records. I tried. They suck. Their early stuff ain't much to write home about, either. 1991’s Road Apples is solid; a lot of riff-rock with some bluesy solos. The following year, their third album, Fully Completely, stepped in the more eccentric and introspective direction which demarcated their best work. They would go on to record their two best albums: 1994’s Day For Night, and 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse. They were bizarre and wonderful. Groovy low-rock mutants never considered for mass production. After that, they had a few more decent albums, but their music started to get happier, more overt, less mysterious and more indulgent. The eccentric Downie started to sound spazzy and unrelatable. And eventually, just bad. If I’m being harsh, it’s because their mid-nineties got so good! I have higher standards for my favorite bands, and The Hip have definitely been the soundtrack to some defining moments of my life. I didn’t discover them till ‘01, early in my freshman year on Comedy Central. Reruns of SNL were the new MTV; for better or worse, the purveyors of South Park and The Daily Show decided to include the musical acts in their edited-down syndication of New York's sketch comedy franchise. And since September 11th was still two weeks away, the main thing nineties kids all had in common was that MTV didn’t show music videos anymore. A gray and chubby Dan Aykroyd showed up on TV wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt saying simply “Canada”. He announced, “From Kingston, Ontario, Canada, home of Kirk Muller, Walter Frank High and me… I’m proud to introduce my friends, The Tragically Hip.” They started playing their low-end back-beat groove “Grace Too”, and I observed Downie’s flamboyant, awkward, unselfconscious frontman antics thinking, “Who the hell is this weirdo?” I loved him right away, and their atmospheric mid-tempo rock gave me the exhillirating sensation that I hadn’t even heard most of my favorite music yet. Which is sorta the whole point of college, or at least the whole point of being 18. An early vista of one’s own ignorance.
I’d go on to have more personal moments with The Hip involving self-confidence, girls, roommates, road trips, Canada... But if I have only one skill in life, it’s knowing when I’m being objective and knowing when I’m being subjective. The Tragically Hip are an admittedly mediocre band—but only on mathematical average. Like all 60/40 bands, their music is peaks and valleys. Depending on which moment you’re listening, they’re either pretty bad or the best band you haven’t heard.

Okay, good talk. Time to get out there with some headphones and a metal detector. Be a sonic scavenger. Take what you need and leave the rest.
Violins and tambourines And this is what we think they mean It's hard to say, it's sad but true I'm kind of dumb and so are you
When the mystique varies thus You can send a man to bury us It's hard to say, it's sad but true I'm kind of dumb and so are you - The Tragically Hip “Last of the Unplucked Gems”

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