Review: Dwayne Gretzky struggle to translate their live appeal to record

Rating: NNN


How does a cover band make an album? 

That’s the unavoidable question around Dwayne Gretzky’s self-titled debut LP. The band has been a live music fixture in Toronto and throughout Canada since they formed in 2011, going from hip weddings and office parties to bigger and bigger New Year’s Eve shows, to festivals like WayHome, their own festival Camp Dwayne and, eventually, opening slots for bands as big as the Rolling Stones. Here in their hometown, they have a bigger following than you’d ever expect for a group who plays none of their own songs. But until now they haven’t had a physical calling card, which is where their new album comes in.

Made up of members of meat-and-potatoes indie rock groups like Sweet Thing, July Talk and Arkells, Dwayne Gretzky sticks to what’s worked for them. These aren’t dusted off-gems or record collector obscurities, but big classic-rock standards, 80s synth-pop hits and a CanRock gem for good measure: the Beach Boys, ABBA, the Tragically Hip, a little band called the Beatles. A big part of Dwayne Gretzky’s appeal is they aren’t afraid to be uncool – they want you punch away your ironic detachment with a dramatic fist pump, join arms and belt along to songs you grew up listening to on your parents’ old turntable. 

But it’s much easier to create that feeling on stage than on a record – especially when the originals are just a click away. So instead of playing the songs straight, as they do in concert, Dwayne Gretzky reinvent them. Often they’ll play one song in the style of another. They take ABBA’s S.O.S. and turn it into a mid-00s Spoon song, with the same bouncy keyboards and indie rock rhythms. The Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby is made over as a song by the Strokes, complete with distorted vocals and sharp garage-rock chording. They take Queens of the Stone Age’s Make It Wit Chu – already a tongue-in-cheek “sexy song” pastiche – and give it vocoders and disco guitars straight from Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. That seduction song from 2007, the most recent cover on the album, takes on a new dimension by having a woman sing it – especially considering the bro-ey aggression that sometimes slips into QOTSA concerts.  

Many of the best covers ever recorded do the same thing – recontextualizing familiar songs until they reveal new layers of meaning. But too often Dwayne Gretzky’s stylistic reinventions just feel like gimmicks – more Me First and the Gimme Gimmes than Cat Power. Some of their more successful songs are actually those that hew closest to the originals, like the album closer, Van Morrison’s Crazy Love. They use all the tools at their disposal – sprawling and dynamic instrumentals with gospel-style backing vocals, pounding drums, horns and a good helping of concert-style energy. On others like A Little Respect and Livin’ Thing, you can tell that they’ve put some thought into the arrangements and recorded with a clean live-in-the-studio style sound.

Those remind you of the band’s live power – the collective euphoria of a big crowd joining together in a song everyone knows. More often, though, you just yearn for that crowd of people. 

Top track: Crazy Love

Dwayne Gretzky play an album release show on Friday (September 27) at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. See listing.

@nowtoronto | @trapunski

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