sandbox

REVIEW: sandbox. – a murder in the glee club (1997)

sandbox. – a murder in the glee club (1997 EMI)

This is a fascinating album.  Sandbox (parsed as “sandbox.” on the album) had come out with a successful enough debut, but what we didn’t know then was how much ambition they had.  For their second CD, they did what most bands usually wait to do, much later on: the dreaded concept album! It is such a gamble to go for a concept album at all, let alone on your second record.

Setting the scene is the title track, “A Murder in the Glee Club”; but is all what it appears to be?  The liner notes state:

“Recorded as in introduction to a play in 1932 by Freddie Corn and the Ohioans, the song has sat dormant on a shelf for the past 65 years.  Shortly after it was recorded, the production was cancelled and the song was never released or published.  The version you hear on this record is the original recording, sonically enhanced and embellished using mordern technology.”

Hmmm.

An online search for “Freddie Corn and the Ohioans” reveals only one hit: an old interview with Mike Smith from the University of Western Ontario, which is only quoting the liner notes.

I always wondered if Sandbox were trying to pull the wool over our eyes a little bit with those liner notes.  You can draw your own conclusions but “A Murder in the Glee Club” does lull you in to the concept of the album:  Altered states of consciousness and mental illness eventually lead to murder.  Then, the murderer becomes haunted by the crimes he has committed.  That “1932 recording” really sets the mood right.

“…to red” is the first proper song on the album, and this is lyrically connected to the final track on Sandbox’s first album, Bionic.  It’s immediately obvious that the production, this time by Don Fleming, is far superior.  “…to red” is a vast improvement sound-wise over anything on the first album.  Performance-wise too; the band no longer sound stiff.  Singer Paul Murray seems less shy, and willing to stretch out his voice.  “…to red” is a fantastic up-beat start, with enough twangy-crunchy guitars to compensate for the pure pop that is the melody.  “I woke up with a different life, I was wondering where I’d been,” and the disoriented lead character is introduced.  This track was written by the uber-talented Mike Smith.  “Spin”, by Jason Archibald continues the story.  “I can’t believe you ran, I can’t believe you wanted out.”  When the character sings, “The Devil was my name,” then I get a bad feeling.  The music is darker, but driving.   The excellent guitar chops of Sandbox really make it enticing.  They leave a lot of space between the instruments so you can really hear what is going on.

“Spin” fades softly into “The Garden Song”, and it is clear that something bad has happened.  “They found you in the garden, arranged smile stained your face.”  While the lyrics are poetic it’s difficult to pay attention to them, because of the imagery they evoke.  The music is absolutely lovely, almost uplifting at times, but this has to be the darkest moment in the story.  “The Spectre”, faster and loaded with tasty backwards guitar, begins to deal with the haunted thoughts of the killer.  This is a duet with Mike Smith on second vocals.  You can picture this guy wandering through some a cold field somewhere, arguing with himself.  It’s an electrifying song, leading into the blitzkrieg of “Melt”.  This is the heaviest song Sandbox have ever done, blasting with a heavy chunk-tastic riff.  “Better stories, a better plan, this guy thinks he’s Superman, I think I’d like to smash his face with Kryptonite.”  I love that line.  There’s an intense feeling of anger.

Forwarding the story, “If I Tell” reveals regret, and delusions.  The killer now wishes he could bring his victim back, but he certainly isn’t willing to confess.  He justifies this by saying that he’s just protecting those whose lives would be impacted by his confession, perhaps family or friends.  Jason Archibald plays what sounds like electric sitar recorded backwards.  Then, “Self-Contained”, the best track on the album steps forth with a powerful, catchy riff.  This was the first song to really jump out on first listen.  “I hate the way I’m self-contained,” sings Paul Murray, wishing he could escape the insanity.  But the really crazy thing is, even though we know what’s gone on before, taken individually anybody can relate to the lyrics.  “I wanna feel the rush, of an electric song, I wanna be in love, it turns me on.”  On first listen, you’re not going to follow the concept of the album completely.  This song jumped out at me, and I always loved the lyrics, even though I hadn’t pieced it together with the rest of the album yet.

“Carry” was a the lead single/video, and an upbeat pop rocker it is.  Guitar jangle and steady beats provide what you need for a hit, only it wasn’t.  (For shame.)  Perhaps it just wasn’t edgy enough for rock fans in 1997, I don’t know and I don’t understand why Sandbox were not absolutely huge.  Jason Archibald’s “Missed the Day” is a beautiful, softer ballad.  The guitar and vocal melodies are ace, but I also like listening to the drums of Troy Shanks.  Brilliant song with its own hit potential, untapped and wasted.

I remember visiting the Calgary Zoo when I was younger.  The most haunting image in my mind was a polar bear named Snowball who paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…endlessly.  (Read more here.)  When Snowball finally died, I am sure I was not the only Canadian who believed that he was probably better off.  Watching that bear, having long ago gone insane in that tiny enclosure, pacing back and forth was one of the most difficult lessons Young Me had to learn about our relationship with nature.  “Bear Bear” was not inspired by Snowball, but by a similar bear at the Metro Toronto Zoo.  It fits into the concept of the album only metaphorically.  Musically, it’s quite jagged and drony, in a strangely catchy way.  This is a powerful song!

According to the liner notes, “How I Feel” was written by Mike Smith, and was lyrically inspired by seeing the Spice Girls on Saturday Night Live one night.  He pulls no punches:  “I’ve been watching all the sheeple of the world, Masses flocking to the mindless shit they’ve heard.”  Musically, it’s brilliant and very 1960’s in vibe.  The electric piano brings me back a few decades.  On this song, the lead character simply cannot connect with people — he is baffled by their behaviour, their words and beliefs.  And he resents them.  “Will you even notice when I go?  I’ll be leaving here when I say so.”

The final track for this dark concept album is “A Question of Faith”, with sparse echoey guitars and a plaintive melody.  What you hear and what someone else hears may be two different endings altogether.  You decide what it all means.  The song is brilliant, and emotionally heavy.  Yet it also feels like release.  A great weight lifting.  “A Question of Faith” is as well crafted as everything else on A Murder in the Glee Club.

I have said in the past, that if I had only bought this album in the year 1997, it would have made my top albums list (published in our store newsletter) that year.  Alas, I did not get it until early in the new year.  If I had got the CD in time, it definitely would have been on that list.  It’s truly a shame, but this second CD proved to be Sandbox’s last album.  Mike Smith had no problem finding fame elsewhere, as his career as Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys has certainly skyrocketed!

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: sandbox. – Bionic (1995)

Part one of a Sandbox two-fer!

sandbox. – Bionic (1995 EMI)

Because it was the 1990’s, and you had to do stuff like this, Sandbox referred to themselves as “sandbox.” with the period at the end.  This being 2015, in this review we’re just going to call them Sandbox.  Sandbox were very, very 1990’s with some melancholy music and an abstract album cover of an apple with nails in it.  There is no reason for this that I can tell.  It may well have just been, “Hey, let’s make this apple look like the guy from Hellraiser.”

Sandbox were from Nova Scotia, and have two really interesting connections.  One, the lead singer Paul Murray is the nephew of Anne Murray, who made “Snowbird” a national treasure back in the 70’s.  Two, the lead guitar player was a talented fellow named Mike Smith.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, then you know Mike Smith as his Trailer Park Boys alter-ego, Bubbles.  I saw these guys opening for the Barenaked Ladies back in 1996 and was impressed by the six tunes they played.

The big hit was “Curious” and it’s still fantastic once you get past the trendy 90’s-isms.  (By that I’m referring to the watery, distorted vocals, lack of a solo, and simple construction.)  But damn, what a song.  All the right parts are there.  The guitar riff works its way into your brain effortlessly, and the band provide all the necessary backing.  Paul Murray is not a singer of remarkable range or power, but his voice works with the music to create a a wave that washes over you.  Mike Smith and the band are more than capable of providing melodic backing vocals.

The problem with the Bionic album was that it had a couple really strong, powerful songs and a lot that didn’t have the same impact.  “Collide” is a good song, but it plods along without enough excitement.  It doesn’t get you moving.   I think a few of these tunes worked better live.  The studio can be a stifling environment, and it took Sandbox an album to really grow in the studio.  “For You” boasts a strong chorus hook, but again not enough spark.

“Decisions”, dark quiet and slow, boasts a great chorus and impassioned lead vocals.  It is augmented by a nice cello part, which works so well for dark tracks such as this.  “Decisions” is a standout on the album, with a big part of that being due to the cello.  More songs on Bionic would have done well with some augmentation like that.  “Grief” is similarly dark, but edgy.  I dig the backwards guitar solo, a touch I have always loved in rock music.  “Three Balloons and a Trapdoor” is the kind of song title I find annoying, but the cello is back.  It’s a sparse little acoustic song without much else going on with it besides the cello.  It sounds like a side closer, and that’s the exact position it occupies on the CD running order.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

“Here and There” is the first song that rocks in a while, and it’s very welcome.  It could have used more hooks, but it gets the job done well enough.  It takes advantage of the jangling guitar chords of Mike Smith and Jason Archibald.  Then, “Live” is a fantastic song.  Where sometimes, Sandbox’s songs seem to lack sufficient passion and memorable melody, “Live” completely delivers.  I feel the sadness, and I can swim in the melodic vocals like a river.  “Flux” and “Weatherman” are both OK. “Flux” has a nice hard beat and a chorus I can get into.  “Weatherman” is sparse, acoustic and intimate.

The last amazing tune, on a par with “Curious”, is the incredible “Lustre”.  A simple guitar lick coupled with another killer chorus is all it takes.  A classy acoustic guitar solo just makes it all so perfect.  It’s hard to describe just what makes the song click, but it has clicked with me for almost 20 years, so there must be something good going on here.

The final track is the slow and dull “And the Mood Changes…”, followed by silence and then a strange distorted spoken word bit that always struck me as another 90’s gimmick.  I was wrong, it is actually the first part of the second Sandbox album, which was a concept album called a murder in the glee club.  This spoken word bit is meant to lead directly into the beginning of that album, a story of a killer who is tormented by what he has done.  And speaking of that second album, what an album it was!  Sandbox obviously benefited from the studio experience on Bionic, because what they achieved on a murder in the glee club was something quite special and fantastic.  But that’s another review.

3/5 stars

Part 218: Liquor and Whores

RECORD STORE TALES Part 218:  Liquor and Whores

The year:  Early 2004.

A new original TV show was starting to make waves in Canada.  I hadn’t caught wind of it yet — I didn’t have cable back then — but our destinies would soon intertwine.  The catalyst was my old childhood and highschool friend, Scott.

Scott remembers the story much like I do.  He used to come into my store every Wednesday to visit and check out new arrivals.  He had just become addicted to this new TV show in question, and was spreading the word.  According to Scott:

“I was trying to get everybody into that show…90% success rate by the way.”

That doesn’t surprise me at all.  Because when you’re talking about a show as Canadian, as original, and as funny as Trailer Park Boys, the series sells itself.  Scott figured I would be an easy convert.  “I just knew you were a Rush fan,” he tells me.  It was the Rush connection that initially caught my attention.

Scott was talking to me at the front counter.  “Have you heard of Trailer Park Boys?” he asked me that day.  I hadn’t.  “It’s hilarious,” Scott continued.  “You have to see this guy Bubbles.  In the best episode, he meets Alex Lifeson from Rush.  He gets to go on stage with Rush, play guitar with Alex, and everything.  He’s actually a pretty good musician.”

Going into more detail, Scott explained:  “Do you remember that band, Sandbox?”  I did.  “Bubbles is played by a guy from that band.  He’s got these big thick glasses, always swearing…Bubbles is the best!”

I had seen Sandbox eight years earlier, opening for Barenaked Ladies actually.  I was really impressed by their show and their single “Curious”, so I picked up their album.  In fact I think their ambitious second album, 1997’s A Murder in the Glee Club, is among the finest albums our country has to offer.  Their lead vocalist was a guy named Paul Murray, nephew of Anne.

Wanna see what Bubbles would look like with a shaved head?  Watch this.

So I was in.  As soon as the first box set came into inventory, I bought it, without seeing a single episode.  Dandy ratted me out for buying two DVDs in one week (which was against the rules at the time), but once I got the discs home, I put on the first season.  I was hooked by the second episode.

Now that the boys are coming back for an 8th season on SwearNet, it’s never too late to get yourself hooked on this incredible show.  After all, if Axl Rose, Sebastian Bach, and Alex Lifeson are all fans, aren’t you curious what you’re missing?

See Guns N’ Roses play “Liquor and Whores” with Bubbles on vocals & guitar

Liquor and whoresSAM_0436
Liquor and whores
Cigarettes and dope and mustard and bologna
Liquor and whores

I went down
Drinkin’ at the legion
I met a girl she was nice
She was pretty and pleasing

She said “Hey boy
We should do some marrying”
I said sure but before we do
There’s something that you should know

I like
Liquor and whores
Liquor and whores
Cigarettes and dope and mustard and bologna
Liquor and whores…

Then one night down at the legion
She walked in, I was drunk on gin
Dancin with a lady friend
She said hey boy, You’d better fly the fuck home
I said no cause five little words I coulda
Swore I said to you

I like
Liquor and whores
Liquor and whores
Cigarettes and dope and mustard and bologna
Liquor and whores…

Forgotten Treasures – Ignored Albums of the 1990s – LeBrain’s List Part 5

Whoops!  I forgot these.  Thanks to the Heavy Metal OverloRd for pointing at least one of these out.

I really should have included these in my list of 88 albums that went under-appreciated in the 1990’s.  I loved these, still do, and my life wouldn’t be the same without them.

In alphabetical order:

BLUE RODEO – Just Like A Vacation (up there with Sloan as one of my fave live albums of all time)
FISH – Kettle of Fish 88-98 (my introduction to his solo music, a great set!)
HELIX – B-Sides (a misnomer: no B-sides included, but all great tracks that didn’t make albums)
GEORGE LYNCH – Sacred Groove (pure smoke!)
SANDBOX – Bionic (I guess Mike Smith makes significantly more money playing Bubbles on Trailer Park Boys)
SANDBOX – A Murder In The Glee Club (brilliant, brilliant concept album on insanity. Genius!)
REEF – Glow (I think these guys were pretty big in the UK but unknown here)
ROCKHEAD – Rockhead (see my review for all the details)
SLOAN – Between The Bridges (can’t believe I forgot my fave Sloan studio record!)

THIN LIZZY – Dedication: The Very Best Of (the song “Dedication” was my intro to Lizzy!)
BILL WARD – Ward One: Along The Way (I have a review forthcoming, one of the best solo Sabs ever)
THE WHITLAMS – Eternal Nightcap (Aussie band, saw them open for Blue Rodeo, blew me away)
ZAKK WYLDE – Book of Shadows (thanks HMO! Liked it so much I bought it twice)

I really hope I didn’t forget any more.  Embarrassing.  Check these out…all great albums front to back!