Ox with the Carnations and the Sea Snakes at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Friday (December 19). $7. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
No matter which college radio station you happen to have on, chances are it's the lonesome voice of Mark Browning, aka Ox, you'll hear softly crooning one of his achy-breaky ballads. The year-end Canadian campus radio airplay tallies will show Ox's warmly entrancing Dust Bowl Revival (independent) album to be one of the most-played discs of this past year - right up there with faves from staples like Radiohead, Belle and Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power and Guided by Voices.
It's a remarkable achievement for Sudbury's answer to Will Oldham, made all the more impressive by the fact that Browning got his spins without any of the behind-the-scenes boozing and schmoozing that's referred to in the biz as "playing the game." Even if he wanted to, he probably couldn't cover the lap-dance tabs.
Instead, the Vancouver-based Browning just wrote some great songs, went into the studio with Radiogram's Chàn, Jesse Zubot and Royal City's Nathan Lawr (currently playing drums with openers the Sea Snakes), and sang 'em like he meant 'em - even when he was just making stuff up as he went along. Stolen Bike? Maybe. Stolen Car? Not bloody likely.
"You're right," chuckles Browning on his way to play a show in Brighton. "I don't think I'd have any idea how to hot-wire a car. I could probably knock someone over and say, 'Gimme yer fuckin' keys!' But I'm always travelling on my own by bus or train, so I really wouldn't have any use for a car."
Since releasing Dust Bowl Revival in July, Browning has been covering a lot of ground, criss-crossing Canada and bouncing back and forth to Europe. The mileage has not only served to raise his profile considerably, but it's also helped him write songs for his next album, which he'll be previewing with the full-band version of Ox at the Rivoli Friday.
Browning's one of those rare songwriters who can write in motion. In fact, it's essential.
"All the inspiration for my music comes from being on the road. If I stop touring, everything stops for me. If I'm not out playing shows, I feel like I'm stagnating. I guess that's why I've got so many songs about moving around and what gets left behind."
Before Browning returns to the studio to begin recording, he'll need to figure out whether he wants to remain self-employed. The fact that Ox's Dust Bowl Revival disc spent weeks near the top of the national college radio chart hasn't gone unnoticed by major-label reps who've spent piles of promotional dollars on their own acts without anywhere near the success Ox has enjoyed. They want a piece of the Ox action.
"I've done everything independently up until now, and I think that helped me get where I am. But it would be nice to have a bigger team working on my next record. We'll see.
"There are certain things I'd want from a deal with a major label and certain things they probably wouldn't be interested in giving me. I can always just stick to what I'm doing."