Artist: Tragically Hip
Album: Fully Completely (1992)
It’s easy to overlook the Tragically Hip. Quintessential Canadiana since stepping onto the scene with 1989’s Up to Here, the Hip have sold out arenas and charmed city-dwellers and smalltown folk alike. Kingston-bred and fronted by Michael Stipe soundalike Gord Downie, their signature brand of mid-tempo riff-rock punctured with folk-tinged balladry has slotted them nicely into any outsider’s conception of the Canadian identity.
Remembered primarily for late-period classic rock staples like their breakout “New Orleans is Sinking” and meaningless beauty “Ahead by a Century,” the Hip formerly existed in my mind as an overrated bunch, relegated to fulfilling CRTC Can-con obligations and obstinately pushing out LPs well beyond their prime. I enjoyed the odd single here and there, but shelved them mentally alongside heaps of overrated ‘90s jock-rock. Boy, was I wrong. It took a summer of landscaping, rattling around in a beat-up Dodge Ram pickup between jobs for me to realize their worth. Every variant of rock station blasted their tunes: classic, hard, alt, new. Commercial success being far from the best determinant of musical value, I decided it was probably worth something and bit the bullet.
To start, I tracked down the records whose singles I was most familiar with, which appeared to be the Hip’s first three: Up to Here, 1991’s Road Apples (apparently a euphemism for iced-over horse manure, given the record label’s pass on the band-proposed Saskadelphia, which allegedly sounded “too Canadian”) and 1992’s Fully Completely. After two months and easily twenty listens apiece, each has found itself in my heavy rotation. Each has its gems and merits, but perhaps the most well-balanced is Fully Completely. Luring in listeners with airwave smashes like “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” and “Fifty-Mission Cap,” Fully Completely reveals a standard of songwriting depth and instrumental layering the surface-level fan may easily pass over, and exemplifies the paragon of an LP without a single wasted track. The existence of lead axeman Rob Baker creates two distinct guitar tracks per song, making the album rife with memorable riffs while creating a guitarist’s play-along dream.
The record is well paced, eschewing the typical front-end load in favour of spacing out key tracks. Near the record’s close, two tracks emerge as shining victors: the plaintive title track and the prairie ballad “Wheat Kings.” “Fully Completely” breathes new life into a played-out minor pentatonic bassline by laying it expertly underneath minor seventh chords, all the while leaving room for Baker’s overlaid soloing and Downie’s tortured vocals. “Wheat Kings” recounts the story of David Milgaard, a Saskatoon man wrongly convicted of murder, and the national spectacle that ensued. Capitalizing on the simplicity of a G-C-D progression and intermittent acoustic and slide soloing, “Wheat Kings” paints an expressive picture of prairie life as much as it explores Milgaard’s story. National clichés aside (the song name-drops both “prime ministers” and “the CBC”), “Wheat Kings” reins the band in from reckless bar chord abandon and kick-snare grooves and drops it down a level or two.
Fully Completely is far from the Hip’s only standout record, but it will transport you from the trunk of an FLQ car to the hundredth meridian to Cartier’s Quebec frontier with surprising fluidity, all the while maintaining one foot in the realm of modern rock.