One of the most criminally neglected bands to ever come out of canada, the Wooden Stars made four full-length albums of original material and recorded an album with Julie Doiron. They were sometimes compared to the Rheostatics but sounded nothing like them. I’m thinking these two bands were each used as reference points for the other because would-be music journalists needed something to compare them to, and neither band sounded like anyone else. There are elements of math rock and post-rock in some of their songs, with tricky time signatures and unpredictable dynamic shifts, but the music the Wooden Stars made resists easy description or categorization. That’s part of what makes it so exciting to listen to.
In 2013, Montreal musician and writer Malcolm Fraser published Wooden Stars: Innocent Gears, something of a biography of the band. I say “something of” because it’s a short book, and there isn’t a whole lot of deep probing into the personal lives of individual members. I get the feeling this was a deliberate choice the band and author made, to maintain some amount of personal distance and let the music speak for itself.
I’m still a little shocked the book exists at all, given how few people knew the band existed even while they were active as a touring, semi-regular-album-releasing unit. While there’s a part of me that wishes Malcolm found a way to get at a little bit more of what made these people tick as songwriters, there’s a lot of information in there that was new to me, and I think he did a good job of articulating what’s special about the music, and what a difficult thing that is to put into words.
All the albums have their own distinct personalities. The Very Same is the most freewheeling, an explosion of manic creative energy. It’s a little staggering to consider that it was recorded by a group of musicians who were all still teenagers at the time.
The Moon is the most conventionally “pretty” of all their albums, more accessible, and with somewhat more traditional song structures. But it’s not pop music by any means. It’s always felt like a winter album to me. I couldn’t tell you why.
People are Different is the closest they ever came to straight-up rock. As of this writing, it looks like it might be the last Wooden Stars album we’ll get, though the band continues to materialize out of nowhere every once in a while to play the odd Canadian music festival.
I’ve always had a hard time telling the voices of guitarists/songwriters Mike Feuerstack and Julien Biellard apart. Those two guys were made to sing together.
The book has helped with that. The division is most notable on the last two albums, and it’s interesting to hear the way the two influenced each other even as their writing became less collaborative, Julien’s songs growing friendlier to easy melody while Mike’s grew darker and more literate. “The Summer I Drank Myself to Death” remains one of the most gorgeously depressing songs I’ve ever heard. And the way “Outlaws” imagines the end of a relationship as something that’s happening on a film set, the intimacy dented by the presence of people who are only interested in capturing the mechanics of the moment, with nothing invested in the people they’ve made their actors…well, here.
One bit goes:
And we lose soft consonants,
the boom disturbed by every coastal breeze.
You lean in close:
“Of course I love you.”
An empty screen.
A blank apparition.
And we can’t even really say goodbye here,
’cause everyone will move in a little closer.
If that ain’t poetry on the page, then there’s no such thing as poetry on the page.
Another thing Malcolm’s book did was give me a deeper appreciation for Julien’s brother Mathieu and what he brought to the band. His bass-playing on The Very Same is jaw-dropping, and he’s responsible for some of the weirdest, most interesting songs on the first two albums. After reading about why he chose to leave before The Moon was recorded and how he’s regretted that decision, and revisiting the albums he was a part of, there’s a new emotional kick to the Mathieu-sung “Country Violins” at the end of Mardi Gras.
When the music fades back up after a false ending for one last syncopated drum pattern and some tentative guitar arpeggios, there’s no bass heard from that point to the final drum hit. It’s like the sound of Mathieu’s absence fully felt, when he hasn’t even left yet, the rest of the band petering out, unsure of where to go without him.
As solid as Josh Latour was in his absence, I’ve come to really miss Mathieu on the last two albums. His unconventional way of playing created a great unpredictable rhythm section dynamic, and once he was gone, Andrew McCormack’s drumming lost just a little bit of its spark. There never seemed to be any real friction between him and Josh like there was with Mathieu, where it sometimes sounded like a fight might break out between their instruments mid-song.
People are Different is my least favourite Wooden Stars album, probably because it’s the slickest and least varied. Having said that, I’m proud to say CJAM played the hell out of it when it came out in 2007. And it’s still a great album. In a perfect world, a song like “Pretty Girl” would have been a hit. An ode to obsession with the word “fuckers” in it and an instrumental bridge section in 10/8 time, on mainstream radio…can you picture it? Kanye West would never have been able to let anyone finish anything again. Those gorgeous sax harmonies at the end would have moved him to tears.
Even if I like some albums more than others, this is a band that’s never made a bad one. The album they made backing Julie Doiron up is beautiful stuff, too — maybe the best thing Julie’s ever done. But I think their 1997 album Mardi Gras may be their very best. The songs strike a perfect balance between chaos and beauty, the lyrics are cryptic, hilarious, heartfelt, disturbing, and sometimes all of those things at once, and there’s some of the best electric guitar interplay you’ll hear anywhere.
I was lucky enough to hear “Cigarette Girl” one late weeknight in 1998 on CBC’s Brave New Waves radio program, when Patti Schmidt was the host. I went out to buy Mardi Gras the next day and was told I had to order it on import. When it came in at HMV, the jewel case was broken. I liked the music so much, I waited fifteen years to replace the case with one that wasn’t falling apart out of some sort of nostalgic purism. Had it been a vinyl record, I would have worn it out ten times over by now.
(If you click through to YouTube and start to think some of the text in this video’s description reads like I’m lifting it for this blog post, it’s because I’m the person who wrote that description and posted the video. Felt like that album deserved at least some representation there.)
So why didn’t these guys gain a larger audience? I think it was a combination of bad luck (almost every album they released failed to get much of a promotional push because the small record labels they were signed to had a habit of going under as soon as a Wooden Stars record came out), a refusal to compromise their artistic vision, and making most of their music at a time when the internet was nothing like the powerful tool it’s become for independent artists over the last decade.
Early on they were offered a deal by Sub Pop but turned it down. Concessions would have had to be made, and they weren’t prepared to make them. They thought there would be more opportunities that size down the road. There weren’t. Some people would say they should have grabbed it when they had the chance. I say maybe the music they made wouldn’t exist as it does if they had, and that would be a huge loss. It seems a shame that they’re still so unknown, but I wouldn’t trade the music for anything.
Something tells me if you asked any one of them, they’d say the same thing.