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BIG HOUSE – Big House (1991 BMG) Not to be confused with the country band also called Big House.
Big House hit the ground running out of Edmonton, Alberta in 1991, but it was hard to take them seriously at the time. The hair and headbands were pretty silly, and they had annoying song titles such as “Refuse 2 Run” and “Nothing Comes 4 Free”. I acknowledged they had a pretty cool single “Dollar in My Pocket (Pretty Things)”. This was lifted from a prior EP called Pretty Things, very hard to find. They also claimed to be former punk rockers. Drummer Sjor (pronounced Shore) Throndson once stated that the band used to have mohawks when they were teenagers, but shaved them off and had a change of musical direction. With that, the silly hair and the dumb name, it was pretty easy to ignore Big House.
Then a co-worker at the Record Store named Kam talked me into listening to it. The year was 2005 and my feelings quickly turned from indifference to delight. Big House, for all their flaws, were actually pretty good! Every song on this album has swagger. It doesn’t sound like a debut album at all, and perhaps that’s due to the experience of having done a prior EP. The band, and singer Jan Ek in particular, make this sound like a second or third album.
“Dollar in My Pocket” made for a good first single, but what a cheesey video. I still cringe at the 30 second mark, when Sjor glances flirtingly down towards his pants on the line, “I got a dollar in my pocket for you.” Fortunately, just a taste of their punk background shine through in the melodies, making this song a bit more unique than the crowd in 1991. Jan Ek has a good scream going on, and lungs of power. They had a knack for writing catchy guitar licks like the one in “Dollar in My Pocket”. The song is all about attitude, so “come along, you can have it if you want it, baby.”
The first chunk of the CD was top-loaded with singles. “All Nite” was a minor hit, a Motley-Poison mixture of rock thrills. Generic, but with that knack for melody once again, not to mention the leathery lungs of Jan Ek. Those two factors elevate the song beyond the morass of crap swimming in the seas of cheese in 1991. Another decent rocker, the Kiss-like “Refuse 2 Run” stays the course before you’re up for the next single, the ballad “Baby Doll”. Generic acoustic sentimental tacky stuff is this, but why do I like it? Maybe that quiet moaning slide guitar? Sounds a lot like Cinderella. Truthfully it’s not bad, but it’s really not that different from any of a hundred ballads. Thankfully “Can’t Cry Anymore” has some noisy guitar and plenty of attitude, especially in the punk rock blowout ending. Once again, it’s remarkable what a handle Big House had on writing great rock melodies. “Can’t Cry Anymore” is one of many on this disc.
“Devil’s Road” sounds like the opening of a second side, and a strong opening it is. “So make the music faster, for the spells we’re castin'” sings Jan Ek on the fine choruses. None of these songs are particularly fast, but they all rock in one way or another. For example “Nothing Comes 4 Free” is slow, but has a menacing vibe and the requisite hooks on the chorus. The closest they get to filler is “Happiness” but even that is not bad. It’s an unusual cross of pop melody with classic rock guitars — Cheap Trick meets Kiss, perhaps?
Final track “Angel on My Arm” is a celebratory tough little rocker, but the penultimate track “L.A.” is my favourite of them all. It seems Mr. Ek’s girl has left to go to L.A. and a be big movie star, and isn’t coming back. But then Jan gets a long distance call from L.A. It seems she mis-dialed and got Jan when she expected to get “Jack”. He responds incredulously, “Jack who?! Jack Palance? Jack Nicholson? Jack…Jack who?!” It’s great fun! Listen to that bouncy bass. That’s pop punk, baby. So are those unabashed “la-la-la-la” pop hooks. Just a killer, instantly likeable fun song is this. “I been drinkin’ with every damn girl in town,” sings Ek after the disappointing phone call. “If I seem a bit too forlorn, I’ve been loving her too long.” People, I’m serious: This song is a triumph of songwriting and execution. You are free to disagree, but all I know is that I have played this song on repeat countless times. In fact I’m doing it now. I’m already on spin #3 for this session.
Silly name and album cover aside, I suppose it all works as a package. It’s no wonder the band never made it big with a cover this horrible; imagine my shock when I saw that it was done by none other than Hugh Syme, master of many Rush records. And this faceless cover conceals within it one of the best hard rock albums of the era. Sadly that era died before Big House could make a second album, but let’s celebrate that we have this one. Just like we are glad for the first two Skid Row albums, or New Jersey by Bon Jovi, I’m happy now to have Big House in my, err, house.