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16 Halifax pop songs from the '90s

by Mark Teo

June 14, 2013

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Tonight’s Porter showcase at NXNE, featuring Sloan, the Superfriendz, and members of Murderecords act Local Rabbits, has us in full remembrance mode: Sure, Halifax is currently epicentre of weirdo guitar pop. (Thanks, OBEY Convention.) But remember, back in the ’90s, when it was dubbed as Seattle North?

Photo: Kris Griffon

Tonight’s Porter showcase at NXNE, featuring Sloan, the Superfriendz, and members of Murderecords act Local Rabbits, has us in full remembrance mode: Sure, Halifax is currently epicentre of weirdo guitar pop. (Thanks, OBEY Convention.) But remember, back in the ’90s, when it was dubbed as Seattle North?

We’ll help paint a picture. Now, we call it the decade-long era the Halifax Explosion: It was an era that birthed genuine Cancon hall-of-famers in Sloan and Joel Plaskett, germinated the Halifax Pop Explosion music festival (duh), and attracted international eyes—famously, Sub Pop, riding a post-Nevermind high, was obsessed with the city. But the era isn’t only for the history books: Many of the city’s best contemporary crop, including Heaven For Real, CROSSS, and the many acts that emerged from the now-defunct York Redoubt, borrow heavily from the distinctive, isolationist power pop the period produced. Here, the 16 songs that defined one of the finest eras in Canadian pop.

Compiled by Mark Teo, who briefly lived in Halifax, and New Glasgow’s Nicole Villeneuve.

Superfriendz—“Karate Man”

Superfriendz mastermind Matt Murphy is considered one of the architects of Halifax power pop. “Karate Man,” from 1995′s Mock Up, Scale Down, shows why: It’s an even mix of sugar-shocked, Beatles-esque vocal harmonies and hard-strummed grunge guitars. By the 2000s, Murphy would also pursue more punk-indebted, garage territories with the Flashing Lights—a stylistic path Halifax itself would eventually emulate with the emergence of its scrappier, lo-fi garage scene.

Thrush Hermit—“French Inhale”

The undisputed king of Dartmouth—the city across the pier from Halifax—got his start with Thrush Hermit, whose three LPs are indisputable Canadian classics. The video for “French Inhale” is a ’90s oddity, featuring psychedelic visuals, gratuitous weed-smoking, and a young Joel Plaskett wearing the average-Cancon-guy uniform of a striped t-shirt, brown cords, and a Scooby Doo haircut. (We assume the guys at Greyowl Point, Herohill, and Cokemachineglow are spitting images of a ’96-era Plaskett.)

Sloan—“Underwhelmed”

Sloan were—and still are—the most recognizable name to emerge from Halifax’s ’90s scene. And it was hard to pick only one song to feature: What about “Coax Me”? Or “The Good in Everyone”? Or “Money City Maniacs”? We select “Underwhelmed,” from 1992′s Smeared, on this list for one reason—it was the song that catapulted Chris Murphy and co. into the public eye. Two decades on, and Sloan’s still going strong. (Heck, they even released a hardcore 7-inch earlier this year.)

Cool Blue Halo—“Too Much Kathleen”

Cool Blue Halo were arguably the crowning gem on No Records, a label run by Waye Mason, a Halifax Pop Explosion hotshot and occasional college lecturer. Beyond possessing the band’s mid-tempo post-grunge, “Too Much Kathleen” also had a wonderfully dated video, featuring eye-scorching video filters, nonsensical symbolism (why, for example, does it feature people sipping from mugs of dry ice?), and, of course, an eyeliner-drenched funky rocker chick. We love this video.

Grace Babies—“King”

Here, yet another gem from No Records archives—and this one was sourced directly from Mason’s YouTube. It’s more crunchy alt-rock from dudes with centre-parted mushroom cuts, so, it’s a no-brainer: We’re going to like it.

Hardship Post—“Watching You”

While Hardship Post were technically Newfoundlanders, they moved to Halifax and eventually became a key cog of its scene: First, they cut records on Sloan’s Murderecords, and eventually got picked up By Sub Pop. The spindly “Watching You” came after signing with the Seattle behemoth, and accordingly, it juxtaposes the band’s sticky-sweet vocals with glossier production that was atypical of their contemporaries.

The Inbreds—“Any Sense of Time”

More proof of Halifax’s former dominance: They attracted bands like Kingston, ON’s The Inbreds. Accordingly, they weren’t the prototypically power-pop; they added dour, low-tempo sensibilities to the mix, best demonstrated by “Any Sense of Time.”

Sandbox—“Curious”

“Curious” might’ve been a one-hit wonder, but some Sandbox members achieved bigger fame: Guitarist Mike Smith, for examples, went on to play Bubbles in the Trailer Park Boys and opened Bubbles Mansion, a now-defunct (but well-loved) Halifax college bar.

Eric’s Trip—“Girlfriend”

Eric’s Trip hailed from Moncton, but they were often lumped in with Halifax’s emergence—they, like Sloan or Superfriendz, shared Maritime roots. “Girlfriend” was one of the band’s biggest hits from their Sub Pop era; the band’s members, like Julie Doiron and Rick White, continue to be pivotal figures in Canadian music.

Jale—“Ali”

Like Eric’s Trip and Hardship Post, Jale were yet another Maritime band signed to Sub Pop. And their sound proved formative: It’s scrappy, donair sauce-sweet, and lo-fi, and they’d probably fit right in on a bill with Meat Curtains. (OK, maybe that’s a stretch.)

Plumtree—“Scott Pilgrim”

Plumtree’s scrappier-than-Pizza Corner-at-last-call, minimalist jangle-pop sounds remarkably contemporary, but that’s in part due to the massive stamp it led on pop culture: “Scott Pilgrim” was the inspiration for—wait for it—Bryan Lee O’Malley’s smash comic / film Scott Pilgrim.

Jellyfishbabies—”The Erlking”

Jellyfishbabies were considered the godfathers of Halifax’s emergent pop scene: They had tracks on the fabled compilations like Out of the Fog, Highway 61, and the Bruce Cockburn tribute Kick at the Darkness; Sloan have often cited them as a formative influence. We weren’t able to find any tracks online, sadly, so here’s a video of real actual jellyfish babies instead. (UPDATE: Listen to “The Erlking” on the Jellyfishbabies website.)

One Free Fall—”Stop Me”

We can’t claim that One Free Fall were an essential part of Halifax’s music scene, but they did have another claim to fame: Members Jim Moore and Ken McNeil eventually moved to Toronto, where, along with Doughboy Scott MacCulloch, they’d form influential alt rock-cum-country act Rusty.

Joel Plaskett—”News of Your Son”

“News of Your Son” isn’t Plaskett’s quintessential Halifax song; that distinction belongs to “Nowhere With You.” But it was a standout track on 1999′s In Need of Medical Attention, the album that transitioned him from Thrush Hermit to his now-thriving solo career.

Hip Club Groove—“Shootin’ the Gift”

Three reasons to love this Hip Club Groove video: It features future Trailer Park Boys like Cory, Trevor, and J-Roc. It has a cameo by Stinkin’ Rich, now known as Buck 65. And it displays their brand of lighthearted hip hop, which landed them on the city’s most influential labels. (Murderecords and No, duh.)

North of America—“Cities and Plans”

And finally, the missing link between the Halifax of then and the North End of now: North of America. While the band was built on a power-pop foundation, they added yelping, sassy vocals, math-rock precision, and herky-jerky post-hardcore rhythms. During their time, it landed them on behemoth emo/post-hardcore label Level Plane; now, you can hear their DNA in bands as diverse as Quaker Parents, Long Long Long, and CROSSS.

Tags: Music, Cancon, Lists, News, Cool Blue Halo, Grace Babies, Halifax, Joel Plaskett, Julie Doiron, Murderecords, NXNE, Rick White, sandbox, Sloan, Thrush Hermit, Trailer Park Boys

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