Now that those of us in the “remember the 90s” generation are starting to turn 30 (thankfully, I have a few years to go), it looks like 90s nostalgia is in full swing. Nostalgia is such a weird thing because you never really know what’s going to hit you. I myself made a “remember the 90s” disc and was somewhat shocked how inescapable trash like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” inspired no memories whatsoever (the ones that really got me? “Steal My Sunshine” by Len and “Inside Out” by Eve 6. Kill me). Like all the dudes who were in their early-thirties in the year 2000 said, “y’know, it really wasn’t that great back then”.
The kind of music that transports me back to the age of 12 is fairly limited. Back then I was really, really into Flood by They Might be Giants (even though that album was nearly a decade old then), and Stunt by the Barenaked Ladies, which may explain why I feel some affinity towards this album. Like the others, Ontario’s Moxy Früvous were a band for the awkward middle-class; normal dudes who couldn’t groove and didn’t sing about sex, but were more than capable of writing a wealth of short, catchy tunes about oddball subjects. Hell, this is who I was when I was 12 – I didn’t think about women much (that would come a couple years later), but songs like “Dead” (with lines like, “I will never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed”), man, that really spoke to me. This isn’t to say that they never sang about relationships (they all did, a lot, in fact), but it was usually about relationships in which one person was insane, or clever subversions of the “lost my woman” trope.
Here’s the twist – I didn’t actually hear Bargainville until 2010, and yet it inspired the same sense of nostalgia. I came upon it through last.fm, which apparently thought I was listening to too much TMBG to NOT like these guys (and Barnes & Barnes, a subject for another day). Immediately it struck me – this is something I really would’ve been into a decade ago. Moxy Früvous obviously knew irony; the umlaut over the ‘u’ made their band name look a lot like Mötley Crüe. which they couldn’t be further from. In reality they sounded like a barbershop quartet consisting of “Weird Al” Yankovic, John Flansburgh, and two cartoon characters. They were essentially a group of buskers who got too good for busking, but still mostly shy away from electronic instruments. Like Barenaked Ladies, they come across as overly nice, sweater-wearing normal folk, and maybe the least likely band ever to use the world “fuck”; clever enough to inject complex wordplay into many of their songs, and obnoxious enough to point it out if you didn’t get it.
Still, these guys understood nostalgia. The first two songs on Bargainville are dedicated to it, remembering the way things used to be and trying to reconsile a way to move past it. “River Valley” straight up says, “this is my world, don’t let it go away”, while asking, “is it a crime, spending my time, dreaming of yesterday?” From a literal point of view the song is about deforestation and the consequences of industrialization, but in a way you wonder if their way of life is being destroyed by the simple fact that they’re getting older. It’s even more overt on “Stuck in the 90s”, when one of them sings, “soon I’ll be thirty, I don’t want to be thirty”. Do they really believe everything was better when they were a kid, or is it the lack of responsibility that they miss?
And so here is Moxy, stuck somewhere between novelty and seriousness, not really going full bore on either, but not sure how to split the difference the same way TMBG did so well with songs like “Birdhouse” and “Puppet Head”. The closest analogue I can think of is Gordon by the Barenaked Ladies; Moxy probably wouldn’t write anything as cloying as “If I Had $1000000”, but they certainly would’ve reveled in the “Picasso or a Garfunkel” line the same. After all, this is an album that references Pat Buchanan, Walter Cronkite, Bill Clinton, and Mickey Rourke, among others. Also like Gordon, this album probably goes on for a few songs too long, particularly in the second half, which features a song entirely in French (“Morphee”) and a pointless cover of the Spider-man theme song (the one in which he “does whatever a spider can”). But Moxy Früvous were desperate to make an impression outside their native Canada, and for the most part they succeeded through a pair of obnoxious but undeniable earworms – “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors” and “King of Spain”. It’s the latter one that really stands out; it’s one of those songs that lodges itself in your brain forever on first listen, thanks to its Caribbean rhythms, large amounts of vocals (it’s nearly a capella), and catchy lyrical sense (“The Lazy Boy” is very similar though a little more defensible). How fitting that it became the second independant single to hit #1 on the Canadian charts, right after BNL’s “Be My Yoko Ono”.
If that’s all there were, then Bargainville probably wouldn’t be worth remembering. But really, only about half of the album is given to novelty material – in addition to the first two songs (which I still really enjoy), there’s at least one great pop song (“Laika”, about the space dog), and some material that’s genuinely touching (“Fell in Love”, “Bittersweet”). The big standout, however, is “The Drinking Song”, a tale of two friends who would get drunk together and run around the fields, sing old songs, and play Nintendo; all harmless boy stuff, until one of them accidentally drank himself to death. It’s particularly moving as it pinpoints the exact moment when the narrator realizes that he has to grow up; when Ryan Dunn killed himself in a drunken blaze of stupidity I couldn’t help but immediately think of this song. “Ever notice how drinking’s like war? To the end of our health, a campaign against myself…”
The album ends on “The Gulf War Song”, which is about trying (and failing) to write a song on the war; though it turns out “the trying was very revealing”. Done entirely a capella, “Gulf War” lays everything bare – “What could we say, we’re only twenty-five years old, with twenty-five sweet summers, and hot fires in the cold. This kind of life makes that violence unthinkable. We’d like to play hockey, have kids and grow old.” This is something new – a grand statement about being unable to come up with a grand statement, that makes a grand statement anyway.
Alas, Moxy Früvous were not built to last. They were one of those bands that blew most of their best material on their first album, and over the years built a reputation as a band whose shtick worked a lot better live than in the studio. Later releases fragment the band’s sound – between more serious, folky albums like Wood and Thornhill, there was a stab at trippy alt-rock in You Will Go to the Moon, and two albums worth of novelty outtakes called The ‘b’ Album and The ‘c’ Album. All of these discs have some good qualities, but the only one that really piqued my interest is Live Noise, which I find alternately incredible and infuriating – on one hand, it picks most of their best songs and improves on many of them, but on the other it divides the carefully selected banter into their own tracks (“We aren’t one of those hippity-hop bands! But if we were, it would sound like this!”), as though its real purpose was to show off just how clever these dudes could be (and so off-the-cuff, too! We made it up as we went along, fellas…)
At the end of the day they never stumbled into a smash hit the way the Barenaked Ladies did, nor did they have the endless creativity (and commissions) that They Might be Giants had. It’s not even clear whether or not they wanted to be known outside of the Toronto area (and if Bargainville is any indication, they never imagined they would be). Maybe they were too self-aware and realized that they were hitting diminishing returns. That’s too bad – I’m not really a big fan, but if nothing else you don’t see bands this wholesome come around all too often. When Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies was hit with a cocaine possession charge, it was not all that surprising, but if a member of Früvous ever touched the stuff I’d be stunned (although I have to mention they do in fact drop an f-bomb on Live Noise. So that shows what I know). They seem like the kind of guys our mothers wanted us to become one day; the type that does Canada’s reputation justice.
11/3/14 Addendum: Sheesh was I wrong about that last part.