JOHN CRITCHLEY, with MEMORY BANK and PLASTIC BAG, at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Friday (May 26). $7. 596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
W hen 13 Engines, Toronto's inimitable balls-to-the-wall rock behemoth, finally sputtered out in 97, there was no doubt that main motor John Critchley would rev again in some capacity.
But with Critchley being Critchley -- hopeless music fan, possible perfectionist, artistically ambitious but clever enough to cloak those impulses in more accessible duds -- the obvious next step of writing a batch of songs and simply recording them was, well, too obvious.
So the appearance of his quietly raging solo debut, Crooked Mile, might seem like no big deal, especially given its easy familiarity to Engines fans, but it actually marks a paradigm shift in the slyly humorous singer, songwriter and guitarist's approach to creating music. And nobody was more surprised by that than Critch.
As he explains from home prior to the album's launch Friday (May 26) at the Rivoli, after the Engines split, Critchley worked on himself before hitting the studio. As in, worked out.
"I went on a physical fitness craze," he laughs. "And I was in a gym, too. Full on, baby. I started doing a little and then I started doing a lot."
Again, Critchley being Critchley, the gut-busting sessions were followed by a summer at his cottage spent drinking. "But thanks to the working out," he says, "I was ready." With autumn came both sobriety and the call to return to work.
Maybe even more surprising than the suds-friendly Critchley's (presumably) washboard abs was his sudden embrace of digital technology via computers.
Long identified as an analog head with a mean amp who lays his thumbprint on every aspect of recording, Critchley says a new computer in his home studio allowed him to experiment as never before.
No limits "What you can do on so much less money -- record, mix and use effects -- is really liberating," Critchley says. "But the downside is, you get caught up in it and it's hard to stop when there's no clock running."
While the home studio proved an ideal way of crafting the new songs and sprucing up older ones -- work that had lain dormant since the Engines -- when the time came to record the disc with band members Brendan Canning (bass) and onetime Engines Scott Stevenson (guitar) and Jon McCann (drums), the quartet headed to Montreal's Star Studios.
Collaborating with producer Glen Robinson, who co-produced the Engines' Perpetual Motion Machine disc, the four cleaved to rock tradition and recorded the old-fashioned way -- loud, analog and live as a band.
"Ultimately, my name is on this thing and these are my songs, but at the same time, this is a band," Critchley says. "Brendan was instrumental in creating the song Stockholm, which is part of how he ended up playing with me. And we rehearsed these songs as a band before we hooked up with Glen in Montreal.
"At one point, we thought about having a band name but we couldn't decide on anything, so we just decided to go with my name. I mean, Deep Purple was gone, Spandau Ballet was taken. All the good names just weren't available. So this seemed like the thing to do."