Kevin House’s eerily beautiful recent album “Gutter Pastoral” reminded us that for all the excitement Montreal/ Quebec-based bands such as The Arcade Fire and The Dears were stirring up, the world at large was still ignoring British Columbia.
Indeed, while reviewing House’s excellent opus, this writer opined that “Gutter Pastoral” may well be the tip of a large cultural iceberg, and – right on cue – here comes BOB KEMMIS’S fine third album “Arena Ready” to adroitly back up his argument.
Though still largely an unknown quantity this side of the pond, Kemmis has nonetheless had an interesting and varied career thus far. Over the last 15 years he’s spent time guitar tech-ing for the likes of The Odds (whose Craig Northey repays the favour by producing here) and Bryan Adams sidekick Keith Scott (who repays the favour by playing in Kemmis’s band here) as well as spending a spell in the late ‘90s as a songwriter on the Warner Chappell treadmill in Nashville.
As you might imagine, the conveyor belt mentality of this latter occupation was hardly likely to appeal to a quirky character like Kemmis, but since then he’s given freer rein to his idiosyncratic, but utterly loveable muse on his solo album “Kemmisutra” (2000) and its’ erstwhile follow-up “Tomorrow Doesn’t Look Good Either.”
The latter’s slightly bleak title might suggest Kemmis sups from the same glass (darkly) as, say, Mark Eitzel, but while this reviewer isn’t yet familiar with those records, “Arena Ready” instead presents us with a wry, melodic and scruffily optimistic singer/ songwriter with an eye for life’s minutiae and some deceptively simple, nagging pop tunes.
Opener “Late Night Advice” gives you an idea of what to expect. It’s wry, gritty power-pop of the maverick Marshall Crenshaw/ early Joe Jackson stable and driven along nicely by low-slung guitars. The punchy and immediate “My Green Shirt” also rocks descriptively without being too taxing (and like so much of the album, is driven along powerfully by Pat Steward’s crisp drumming) while the amusing, Costello-ish wordplay of “Figured Out” (“Been touched by Midas, but you’re anything but gold/ there’s nothing like a hand to hold, so you fold”) again proves Kemmis has a way with low-key jangly pop and hook-stuffed choruses.
Mostly, though, Bob Kemmis’s music sways rather than rocks, and songs like the gently bitchy “Let Down” (“stop sucking, I paid $40 for these tickets and you’re sucking!”), the balmy and blissful “Letter To Gotham” and the slow-to-medium ache of “Tell Me It’s Not True” all showcase his knack for gentle seduction. Elsewhere, “Inferior” features quite probably the least funky use of a clavinet ever; the excellent “The End Of This Song” is tinged with accordion, baritone guitar and the sort of cinematic Americana that Chris Isaak and Calexico have made their own and the sad and blue closing “Amy Elyse” finds Kemmis admitting “there’s a fine line between rain and mist/ between being the one and the one who doesn’t exist”. It’s devastatingly good and quite possibly the finest song here.
In reality, though, “Arena Ready” rarely puts a foot wrong at all. Bob Kemmis’s songs suggest he may have been roughed up, lost out and – literally in the case of “Freak Luck” – knocked down on many occasions, but he strikes me as one of pop’s Jim Rockfords and if he keeps tossing out records of this calibre we should be glad he’s tenacious enough to remain on our trail.