HOWIE BECK CD release with LINDY at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, July 22). $12. 416-596-1908.
Ask Howie Beck why it took so long to follow up his acclaimed sophomore album, Hollow, and you feel like you're listening to VH1's Behind The Music - the part after the voiceover intones, "And then... tragedy struck!" Five years ago, Beck was in line to be crowned Toronto's prince of bedroom pop. Critics went crazy over Hollow's raw, heart-wrenching tunes and Beck's endearing DIY approach. He released the home-recorded disc on his own 13 Clouds label and sold it at shows and on his Web site, which helped him develop a solid cult fan base. Folks in the UK started paying attention, and in 2001 our boy landed a deal with the small but respectable Easy! Tiger label on the other side of the pond.
And then the World Trade Center got totalled.
Beck was in a French hotel chatting with interviewers on his first big press day, which just happened to be September 11.
"There was a person coming to the door every 45 minutes, telling me it was time for the next interview, and I was starting to feel like an important guy," he laughs ruefully across the table of a Queen West bar. "But each time the guy came up, he looked a little stranger. When the interviewers finally told me what was going on, I went down to the lobby of the hotel. It was a total nightmare."
Everything then went to shit. Flying from city to city seemed fairly unappealing, and while Beck claims he was willing to risk travelling, the prospect of "playing little songs about a little life" seemed pointless. The tour ground to a halt. To make matters worse, one of the label partners hung himself shortly thereafter with little explanation.
It was the final straw.
"I stopped for a year and didn't want to listen to music," Beck sighs. "I just spent time not doing much of anything."
All that doom and gloom eventually spurred his productivity, as Beck proved himself to be more than capable of transforming existential angst into something aesthetically gorgeous. A long-time local fixture who made a name for himself behind the drum kit, Beck started writing in earnest after a bout with mono sent him into the throes of depression. The sad-sack songs from that period ended up on his lauded Pop And Crash debut.
With his new self-titled disc (out on the True North label), he's still exploring the darker side of the human condition. On one track, whispery vocals introduce a character in pop-cult paralysis who can't bring herself to open the books beside her bed. On a bouncier number with a killer bass line, Beck's self-harmonized sighs assure you that it doesn't really matter if it's all fucked up, cuz everybody knows you'll get through somehow.
While angsty tunes are nothing new - hell, they're the foundation of grunge and why Fred Durst and his pals are in business - Beck's musical melancholia is so achingly pretty that you don't feel like you're wallowing in a pit of despair. There's a kind of tough fragility in his multi-tracked vocals that somehow sounds hopeful.
Beck says those hyper-detailed arrangements are the result of even more angst.
"I became an obsessive perfectionist with this album. I mastered it so many times, mixed it dozens of times, re-recorded things. I was never happy with it," he explains. "It was a really, really intense process. Next time I make a record, I want to do it in a week. with a band, live.
"You know those stories about Fleetwood Mac making Rumours and people fighting each other? That was happening in my brain! I was breaking up with myself in my head, having all these affairs. I was literally throwing songs away, tossing stuff out the window and starting again...."
While Fleetwood Mac might be a jumping-off point for the songsmith's brutal recording process, Beck owes more of a debt to Canrock icons Rush. He claims he's been told his unconventional arrangements have proggy elements, and his first band, at age 13, was called Trilogy.
"I wanted to be Neil Peart," he chuckles. "I had the wall of Rush. I had a Rush flag, and I smuggled cameras into their concerts so I could take pictures.
"Alex Lifeson went to my high school, and there's a big mural on my high school wall - it's probably still there - that he drew when he was a teenager. When I was in music class, I used to look at it every day, this rainbow that turned into a note that had 1974 written on it. Wicked.
"He played baseball near my house, so I finally found the courage to walk up to him, saying, 'Hey man, I like the mural you drew in my high school.' He said, 'Oh, that thing's still up there?' It was so cool. They were the real deal, man."