In order to fully understand Gord Downie’s new record Coke Machine Glow you first have to understand the parameters of the comparisons. Downie, the point man for The Tragically Hip, has long established himself as the mildly eccentric singer for one of the most successful Canadian rock bands ever. The Hip’s peers are no less than the biggest of the big (The Guess Who, Rush), but with Downie’s new solo project he’s hoping you’ll join him on a journey that will propel his work into an entirely different class of company.
Best described as the land of the earthy poet kings, this is the place inhabited by artistic giants like Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Cockburn and Daniel Lanois. To be lumped in amongst these universally respected, artistically vibrant solo artists takes a massive leap of faith considering Downie is the reigning monarch of beer hoist rock. And when it comes down to it, reluctant mucho props forthcoming, Downie ably meets this challenge.
Coke Machine is a wonderful success for a number of reasons:
1) With the exception of The Rheostatics, I can’t think of anyone whose imagery more effectively defines the term “Canadianna” (see the “Lofty Pines”).
2) It is not — in any way — like a Tragically Hip record. I’ve got a theory going that security on this release was so tight not because the record company were worried about leaks, but because they didn’t want advance word getting out that the record was full of mandolins, accordions and fiddles, thereby alienating the bulk of their cash-cow Hip following (check the jug-band rock of “Yer Possessed”). But I digress.
3) The impeccable eccentricity of it all. With a list of musicians helping out that reads like a who’s who on the permanent guest list of the Horseshoe Tavern, the seemingly disparate contributions of people like Jose Contreras, Dale Morningstar, Andy Maize and others are all unified under the sparse, challenging umbrella of sound they create.
4) If song titles like “Nothing But Heartache In Your Social Life,” “Boy Bruised By Butterfly Chase” and “Insomniacs Of The World, Good Night” don’t reek of titles lifted straight out of The Smiths songbook, I’ll eat my Meat Is Murder CD.
The greatest achievement with Coke Machine isn’t in any one actual song. There’s not a lot of the highest highs here. But as a whole, it’s all both unique and comforting, a sound that can only be described as Kawartha cottage porch rock. Held together by what seems like a case of beer, a half-dozen friends, some acoustic guitars and a few discreet hot knives behind the woodshed, Downie has managed to create a piece of work that defines what Canadian music truly sounds like in all its simple, naive majesty.
This review was originally published March 20, 2001 via Chart Communications.