THE CREAKING TREE STRING QUARTET CD release at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Saturday (January 8). $10, w/ CD $20. 416-763-9139. Rating: NNNNN
Many musicians fear institution al cash. They worry that funders promote cookie-cutter versions of what they see as formulaic Canadian music - or, as the avowedly independent Jane Siberry once grumbled, "Grant money leads to grant music."
That's what makes Toronto's Creaking Tree String Quartet so exciting. Their thrilling self-titled debut, released in 2003, was recorded under the auspices of the Canada Council's specialized music program, which handed the innovative acoustic roots squad 10 grand after hearing their demo, which was, amazingly, thrown together during their first jam session.
Now, their fusion of bluegrass, virtuosic jazz, crisp classical arrangements and thoughtful Eastern European and Latin influences is displayed even more prominently on their crackling-fresh sophomore disc, appropriately titled Side Two. It's phenomenally distinct from the rehashed traditional roots archetypes that pass for many a post-O Brother band's "bluegrass revival."
As bassist Brian Kobayakawa and fiddler/de facto bandleader John Showman insist during a delightful three-way phone conversation, that genre-defying ability to make their music sound fresh is due in part to their democratic approach to songwriting.
"Dividing writing duties is one of the strengths of the band for sure," says Kobayakawa. "The nice thing about having one person write each song is that there's always someone who gets the last word on each track, although it's amazing how often we're unanimous about decisions."
He laughs, "Our biggest fights are about what restaurant to go to."
"Everyone's super-flexible, and if one person really hates the direction, invariably we'll take that into account and make a change," adds Showman. "It's actually way more communist than a democracy."
The commie utopian fantasy clearly works. For the 12 tracks on Side Two, each player receives an equal three writing credits. The cool thing is how gracefully their divergent styles flow together. Kobayakawa's got the Latin jazz grooves on Longmorn. Showman does his creaky country thing on Old Crow. You get the bluesy lurch of Crazy Strings mandolin main man Andrew Collins's Oliver's Lament and the dizzying classical fingerpicking of guitarist Brad Keller's Ghetto Rag.
That the boys pull off their stylistic synergy is a testament to their musical chops. No surprise there, since they've already proven their mettle in a slew of projects like Collins's Foggy Hogtown Boys and Kobayakawa's Celtic Pagan Mary.
And they've made a pristine recording on a shoestring budget.
While the Rheostatics' Don Kerr sat behind the console at the storied Gas Station studio for their debut, Side Two was recorded with Brian Lahaie, a percussionist who helps Kobayakawa flesh out folkie Angie Nussey's rhythm section, and who served as an assistant recording engineer on Nexus's Drumtalker album.
"It was purely a financial decision not to go back to Don," offers Showman. "We didn't have a grant to record this one, and Brian knew his gear - and more importantly, he was able to transport it around, which saved us a lot of cash. Andrew had just bought a house in Cookstown, Ontario, an old wooden house, and we made the record there."
Collins hadn't unpacked yet, so the band had tons of space.
"We set up the main gear and Brian (Kobayakawa) in the living room, a couple of us were upstairs in isolated rooms, and the rest were downstairs in isolated rooms, but we were all connected. The effect was like playing live through headphones."
While the guys acknowledge that their lack of lyrics may "scare off" labels, their musical wit is matched by the pun-tastic wordplay of their song titles. Take Kobayakawa's classical dirge The Battle For Alveolar Ridge.
The alveolar ridge is the part of your mouth just behind your front teeth. Don't worry - I had to look it up.
"That song was originally written as score material for a documentary about the riots in Quebec City during the summit of the Americas," he explains. "Friends of mine had shot footage of the police in all their riot gear riding into these crowds of people, and it was a total battle scene. When the documentary went under, I changed it to a Creaking Tree song.
"My girlfriend has a degree in linguistics, and on our first date I asked her what 'alveolar ridge' meant. Later on, I got really stoned - not that we condone drug use - and thought it was the funniest title in the world."