Like Fathers, Like Sons
In Edmonton, Alberta, Jr. Gone Wild carry the Byrds/CSN&Y tradition into the Eighties.
by Michael Macrone
Exactly one beat into the third bar of “It Never Changes,” when hauntingly precise vocal harmonies ring in over the full strums of multi-tracked acoustic guitars, one feels uncannily at home. “Changes” could be a lost cut from the Byrds’ classic Mr. Tambourine Man—it has all the formal and emotional lineaments. But don’t get the wrong idea; this first song on the first album by Canada’s Jr. Gone Wild is only the beginning of Less Art, More Pop! “Changes” and other compositions in direct debt to McGuinn, Crosby and company—“Goodness,” “Hey Hey Paula” (with a little British invasion thrown in) and “She’ll Never Know”—have indeed earned the Edmonton, Alberta quartet a reputation in the American press as a “revival band—almost.” Yet the “almost” is certainly essential, and inevitable once “Heather on a Bad Day” follows up “Changes”’; while “Heather” may have its sources, the translation is scarcely literal. As Mark McDonald, the song’s composer, Jr. founder and guitarist, says, even when he does try to write a “stock Byrds song”—hardly what he does with “Heather”—he always ends up with “something that’s kind of bent.”
One would think that frequent comparisons to the Byrds, and attempts to measure Jr. Gone Wild against that limited yardstick, would gall the band. But McDonald is good-natured about it all and volunteers to acknowledge the salience of the band’s roots. When he established the current version of the group (an earlier Jr. had perished after about a year) in 1984 with lead guitarist David Lawson, their sound took form with “David and me jamming on acoustic guitars, learning Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs, our favorite Byrds hits, things like that, just for fun,” McDonald says.
Pure pleasure, along with a love for the folk-rock and pop idioms of the Sixties, has been the raison-d’être of Jr. ever since On the success of Jr.’s unstudied approach, McDonald remarks: “I think we’re blessed because we started the band for the right reason. We never thought about what we were going to do; we were just sick of not playing.” Little concerned with high-art notions of originality, the band is irreverently traditional. “We don’t have any band motto or credo,” adds McDonald, “but as far as I can tell, ‘less art, more pop’ says it all.”
When Lawson and McDonald rounded out the group with drummer Ed Dobek (who, with McDonald, had begun his career in 1979 in one of Edmonton’s first punk bands, Joey Did and the Necrophiliacs) and bassist “Dove” (Dave Brown), they weren’t interested in just filling out their acoustic sound or ratifying their folksy trajectory. Dobek (a devotee of the Damned) and Dove (a Paul McCartney freak) brought wholly different styles and attitudes to bear on McDonald’s passion for country & western and Lawson’s Sixties–rock & roll purism.
Everyone in the band composes prolifically-alone and in tandem. And while founder McDonald brought the lion’s share of material into the group and onto the LP, Jr.’s next album will be more evenly balanced among the four sensibilities. Already, the thunder of Dobek’s scattershot manifesto, “Cosmos,” sets off with effect the Dylanesque impressionism of McDonald’s “Heather” and tight traditionalism of Lawson’s “Changes.” The result is a record not simply revivalist and traditional, but dialectical and prospective.
Less Art, More Pop! has been well received in Canada and the States, and the band plans to extend its reach soon with a continental tour. The outlook, of course, was not always so rosy. After more than a year of establishing a local audience and an internal rapport, gigs began drying up and band personnel began absenting the Edmonton environs for weeks at a time. On one such journey, Dove, accompanying hometown hardcore band SNFU to the West Coast, landed with a Jr. demo tape in the offices of SNFU’s L.A.-based label, BYO Records. A deal was quickly cut, and the band found itself lodging in the BYO warehouse while exploring the wonders of 24-track recording.
Working in the studio has helped consolidate a band that is still learning the ropes. “It took us a while to get used to traveling together,” confides McDonald. “But we really thrive creatively in the studio. We’ll stay up all night, as long as there’s coffee; and sometimes we come up with some really beautiful things.” The group, by philosophy, arranges and produces spontaneously-dabbling with a chorus box here, overdubbing nine guitars there. Ultimately, the composer has “dictatorial power” over the final product, although the band aims for solidarity.
Nevertheless, Jr.’s first effort in the studio was a learning experience, which guaranteed that the end product would not consistently match the original concept. The three songs which sold BYO on the band—“Heather,” “Tragedy in E,” and “God Is Not My Father,” all by McDonald-turned out less than satisfactory to their author and were consequently pulled from the Canadian issue (the label demanded their release in the States). But to this ear, “God” is one of the triumphs of the album, a searing condemnation of institutionalized religion which nevertheless affirms the basic Christian concept of brotherhood. “Tragedy in E,” a bitter repudiation of false friendship in the mold of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” is, however, more problematic. McDonald openly condemns it as “immature” and the product of a “temper tantrum.” “And of course, it doesn’t have any lines nearly as powerful as some of those in ‘Positively 4th Street.’”
Among songwriters, McDonald most admires Dylan, and is particularly taken by the cadences and obtuse mystique of Dylan’s lyrics from the mid-period and later revivals such as “Jokerman.” McDonald’s “Heather,” “Tragedy” and his collaboration with Dobek, “I Fell Dumb,” make the inspiration palpably clear. The unpretentious guitarist claims his “goal in life is to write something as simple and as complex as that line from ‘Like a Rolling Stone’: ‘When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose … It’s so obvious, yet … it changed my life in a way.”
The album, thematically centered on the pains of personal relationships and on the often inscrutable independence of others, peaks with McDonald’s “Day of the First Snow.” Here, an unspoken understanding is wrested from the terrors of speech by the aching reach of the melody line in concert with the soaring guitars, which push to the edge of the chorus: “Let’s not look for answers. Let’s not ask any questions/Let’s not state the obvious. It probably isn’t worth the mention.” Unless it’s eloquently obvious, like “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Day of the First Snow” obviously gives it a shot.
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First published in Music & Sound Output magazine (October, 1987)