About a quarter of the obscure music I listen to stems from the same source: a little indie record label nestled in the rolling-hilled beauty of Bloomington, Ind. — my home state’s lone liberal hippie mecca that someone once called the Austin, Texas, of Indiana.
Now, for the sake of genre, I’m going to be grossly stereotypical. But it’s all out of love and admiration, I swear. Bands on the Secretly Canadian label sound identifiably, distinguishably similar, from the raspy Catfish Haven — the grungy, alt-country/doo-wop version of O.A.R. — to the jovial bounce of Richard Swift’s piano-heavy beats to the gypsy klezmer circus bluegrass of Japonize Elephants. What’s so similar about that, you ask? It’s the strange, frenzied vibratto vocals over bouncy songs, with a kind of muted mellow mood hanging overhead. For as lush and electronic as some of the bands get (The Earlies), I think one of the strongest defining characteristics of Secretly Canadian bands may be a kind of raw, organic innocence and melodic simplicity.
Or it might be in the vocals alone. This is going to sound very crass, but I can’t explain it any other way than saying they sound gay. In a good way. And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.
It’s the slightly feminine lilt to the words, the quasi-lisp tucked between S’s and, hello, the piercing falsetto.
Before I delve in, go to the website. It is one of the coolest ever, especially if you love free downloads as much as I do: http://www.secretlycanadian.com/roster.php
June Panic is the flagship Secretly Canadian singer/songwriter. The North Dakotan multi-instrumentalist was the first artist released on the label, so perhaps it’s his peculiar eccentricity his labelmates are attempting to mimic. June also set the tone for dark, haunting melodies sung in nasally whine. I have to be in the mood to listen to June, and that mood usually entails depression.
But I can’t help think of the label without a nod to Danielson, the first Secretly Canadian band I discovered. The Daniel of Danielson — a Jersey boy and Rutgers alum — perfects his screechy falsetto on childlike melodies backed by rambunctious instrumentation, where horns and bells are no strangers to the joyful cacophony. The music comes off as outrageously silly, as in, my 5-year-old niece would even be like, “WTF.” But even if Daniel’s voice gets a little grating, there’s no denying that he’s having a ton of fun reinventing gospel pop. Like this song, “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?” A happy way to start any day, whether you actually listen to the song or just read the name of it:
One of my favorite bands under the Secretly Canadian umbrella is actually Canadian — but isn’t signed to the SC label. Sunset Rubdown, hailing from Montreal, belongs to the sister label, Jagjaguwar. (Did I mention this music is nerdy? The Jagjaguwar name came out of a Dungeons and Dragons name generator.) Okay, here’s the story: right before the millenium, Chris Swanson, who co-owned Secretly Canadian, teamed up with Darius Van Arman of Charlottesville, Va., who had started Jagjaguwar several years earlier to provide a label for his friends of The Curious Digit. The latter moved to the glorious Hoosier state and now the like-sounding labels share office space and staff.
I could write separate blogs on each band on these labels, but for the sake of brevity I’m lumping them together in gross stereotypes. I will revisit a few of them in the future, but for now, here are some tunes straight from Canada … or at least Bloomington.
Anyway, here’s Sunset Rubdown with “Idiot Heart,” containing one of the best lines ever: “I was never much of a dancer, but I know enough to know you gotta move your idiot body around.”
And another SC song worth a listen: Richard Swift singing “Songs of National Freedom” on the great British music show Later With Jools Holland.
And last, easily my favorite song from one of my favorite Secretly Canadian bands, here’s Jens Lekman with “You Are The Light”