Album Review: The Scenics – Dead Man Walks Down Bayview

I don’t pretend to know much (or anything) about the Toronto music scene. But I feel safe in my assertion that The Scenics aren’t typical of whatever it sounds like. With a country-punk vibe that owes as much to Johnny Cash as to The Replacements, The Scenics are in fact a highly-regarded punk band that have been active since the 1970s. Wedding a ramshackle jangle and melodic songs to a punk aesthetic, the group ends up with a singular sound not especially redolent of few others act I could name. But fans of Mekons will delight in finding a few similarities and a compatible sensibility.

When – as on the oddly-titled (and decidedly NSFW) “A Fox, Her Fur, and Where She Parks It” – the band ostensibly aims for a tender, romantic vibe, the result is equal parts that and something vaguely sinister and disturbing. But then “When You Come Around” feels like a Paisley Underground update of The Byrds, albeit with more, er, uncommercial-sounding lead vocals. Speaking of commercialism, the group’s sturdiest tunes evoke memories of when The Velvet Underground attempted (quite successfully, as it would happen; see Loaded) to craft pop music. But just when things start to sound a bit like the aforementioned pop music, the band takes a turn toward dissonance, with jagged guitar lines and a woozy, slightly off-kilter beat, with buzzing guitars and clattering drums. And the songs – like “Growing Pains” – are all the better for it.

It’s manic psychobilly time for “No Sleep,” which feels like a cross between Jason and the Scorchers and The Damned. “O Boy” takes a similar approach, putting creamy harmonies behind a much less refined lead vocal; the two textures play off one another nicely. The story-song “I Can’t Be Careful” is reminiscent of “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” (VU’s Loaded again). As it happens, The Scenics are serious Velvets fans, having gone so far as to release the live collection How Does it Feel to Be Loved: The Scenics Play the Velvet Underground in 2008. The group has clearly learned from the Velvets’ approach, and applied those lessons to their own original material.

The production style on Dead Man Walks Down Bayview is free of artifice, as close (one suspects) as the group to come to an accurate document of their onstage sound. (By the way, after a 26-year break from live performance, the band returned to the stage starting in 2009.)

Both guitarists – Andy Meyers and Ken Badger – write the songs, and each guitarist takes the lead vocal on his own material. Some listeners may find Badger’s guttural vocals a bit harder to take, but his compelling and oblique lyrics make sticking with it a worthwhile effort most of the time. (Though you earn a merit badge of some sort of you can endure all nearly nine minutes of “The Farmer.”)  Meyers’ vocals are much more conventionally pleasing; one suspects he’s more involved in vocal harmonies as they occur.

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