northey valenzuela with Dayna Manning and Moonlight Graham at the Reverb (651 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, January 20). $7. 416-504-0744. Rating: NNNNN
If you've seen an episode of the quirky CTV television comedy Corner Gas, it's a safe bet that the insidiously catchy theme song, Not A Lot Goin' On, is already burned into your brain. Chalk one up for Northey Valenzuela.
The out-of-the-blocks success of the project is by no means beginner's luck. Craig Northey established his reputation for writing memorably melodic pop tunes with Odds, and since splitting he's just stepped up his productivity, placing compositions with Colin James, Rosanne Cash, Damhnait Doyle, Wide Mouth Mason and others.
So it should come as no great shock that his writing partnership with Gin Blossoms hitmaker Jesse Valenzuela would click, and quickly.
"We actually wrote Not A Lot Goin' On over the phone," offers the prolific Northey on the line while thinking about a new tune for Colin James.
"And that was before we'd seen an episode of Corner Gas. I got to know Brent Butt while working with the Kids in the Hall, so when he needed a theme song for his show, he gave me a ring.
"Brent told me what the series was about and said he wanted something upbeat that you could listen to while driving across the prairies. That's it. So I called up Jesse and we finished the tune later that same day. The hardest part was holding the receiver with my shoulder while playing guitar."
Northey initially met Valenzuela a decade ago when both their bands were struggling for attention in Los Angeles. Following a fortuitous concert billing, the two songwriters convened at a post-gig party and bonded over a shared affinity for the music of Nick Lowe.
However, Northey Valenzuela didn't use Lowe's rock 'em, sock 'em relationship with Dave Edmunds as a collaborative model. They were thinking more in terms of Southern soul dream team Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.
That accounts for the stylish lyrical economy of the songs on Northey Valenzuela's self-titled debut for Mile High/Maplemusic, and the refreshing single-take feel of the performances.
"The idea was to be like Dan and Spooner banging out ideas on a Wurlitzer, trying to come up with something that felt good that people would want to sing. That will probably sound like a strangely anachronistic way of working, but we don't care what other people think.
"For me, those Penn-Oldham songs represented the best of a great period of music in which writers were dealing with pure notions and had a soulful intent, along with a genuine sense of craftsmanship.
"So at a time when everyone is making records on computer, we whittled the words and notes down to the ones that moved us, and went into a room to record with players who added only what they felt they needed to. We ran the songs through once or twice and then recorded everything live off the floor. It makes me laugh when people say our stuff doesn't sound that innovative. Nobody is making records like that any more."
Northey's reluctance to turn down an offer to collaborate has been keeping him busy lately. He's just completed recording a new album with Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker, and there are plans for a new recording with his Booker T & the MGs-inspired side project, Sharkskin, in addition to a follow-up to 2002's Giddy Up solo disc.
He's barely had time to talk to Valenzuela, let alone tour with him.
"Although we've played together many times in hotel rooms around the world, we've never actually performed for an audience.
"And talk about flying by the seat of your pants," he laughs, "Jesse got his luggage stolen last week, so he had to fly back to L.A. He should be here today, which means we'll work out a set tomorrow. The Toronto show should be lots of fun."