Gordon Downie,
Battle of the Nudes
(Zoe/Rounder, 2003)

Gordon Downie is the front man for the Tragically Hip, one of Canada's most consistently cool bands. (The Hip recently headlined Edgefest, the annual alternative rock extravaganza coordinated by Toronto radio station CFNY.) Downie and his band mates have been cranking out their proudly Canadian brand of rock since the mid-1980s. Their debut EP arrived on store shelves in 1987 and over the next decade songs like "New Orleans is Sinking," "Three Pistols" and "Fifty Mission Cap" muscled the band to the forefront of the Canadian music scene. But the group's success in the U.S. has never come close to their overwhelming popularity at home.

Battle of the Nudes is Downie's second solo effort, the follow-up to 2001's Coke Machine Glow. And I really didn't like it on first listen. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all ... so how I could write this review? The answer turned out to be to listen to the album again, and yet again.

Battle of the Nudes is not an easy album. It contains plenty of deliberate dissonance and anti-musicality. Even the most accessible of these dozen songs, "Pascal's Submarine," didn't fare well on the radio here. So to give you some sort of reference point, imagine a mix between Michael Stipe's early lyrical obscurity, Lou Reed's passionate toughness and Robyn Hitchcock's sonic experimentation and sense of the bizarre. That image might provide a sense of what Downie dishes up. It's not completely inaccessible but you won't find yourself mindlessly humming any of these songs at work tomorrow!

Now on my sixth or seventh listen to the album I'm finding myself getting into "Into the Night," "Christmastime in Toronto" and "Pillform 2." And the Ringo Starr perkiness and engaging horn arrangement on "Pascal's Submarine" are definitely growing on me as well. However the moments of Henry Rollinsesque performance poetry such as "Who By Rote" are just not my cup of tea.

Battle of the Nudes is a brave album, unlikely to achieve much in terms of chart placement. Luckily for Downie the success of the Tragically Hip allows him to venture into distinctly noncommercial territory without his career hanging on sales figures. So if you're more interested in attempting to explore the soul of an artist at his most experimental than in latching onto the latest pop meme, Downie's lyrically cryptic approach to alt-alt-rock will give you plenty to sink your synapses into. Between listening to Tom Waits and the Flaming Lips that is.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 25 October 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.