Wednesday, 9 November 2016

World Tour

l-r: Alvvays, Small Time Giants, Tanya Tagaq, Historian
Week 10: North America, pt. 2 - The Arctic

There are SO MANY bloody good bands and artists from Canada. Arcade Fire, Neil Young, Broken Social Scene, Tegan & Sarah, Barenaked Ladies, Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies, Godspeed You! Black Emperor... there's just the weeniest of a handful of people you're no doubt more than familiar with. We are talking about a nation with immense musical talent throughout its vast space - it's the second-largest nation on Earth in terms of total area. Yet its population of 35m people is little more than half that of the UK! Isn't that incredible? And more than 80% of Canada's population live in urbanised areas near its southern border with the USA.

In fact, that's where we're going next. I fancy a road trip. Now, I know it's like the "done thing" to travel across America from East to West on Route 66, but as you know I'm really not one for convention. We're going from South to North, heading out of Georgia, through South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and into the state of New York at its western extreme, then, via Buffalo, into the state of Ontario in Canada. This will HAVE to include a visit to Niagara Falls as we skirt around the western edge of Lake Ontario on our way to Toronto.

Now there are quite frankly hundreds of great bands bursting to be discovered in Canada, but I've come across this lot called Alvvays (pronounced 'always'). This is old school indie pop that wouldn't have sounded out of place on classic British labels like Sarah, Subway or 53rd & 3rd back in the late 80s/early 90s. Their self-titled debut album from 2013 picked up loads of plaudits and is packed to the rafters with classic-sounding jangly guitar-pop. I bet Brian and SWC will love this (if they're not already aware of them).

Archie, Marry Me is one of the best tunes on the record, and I don't know if it's just me, but singer Molly Rankin seems to have more than a little bit of Debbie Harry about her in the video.

We're returning to Canada shortly, but first we're off to a place I'd love to visit to see what's there besides snow - Greenland. Trouble is, it's a bitch to get to. So much so that I'm going to have to break one of my few self-imposed rules for this series - you see, you cannot get to Greenland directly from Canada! Not even by boat (unless it's part of a cruise, but bugger that!), so we'll have to fly. And we have to fly via... Iceland. Discussions continue about creating a new airport in Greenland to serve Canada as well as Iceland, but for now we're stuck with this long-winded diversion. So we (eventually) arrive in Nuuk on Greenland's Western coast, but we're not there yet. We need to get to the country's fourth-largest town Qaqortoq. Get this - there are NO ROADS between towns! If we're really lucky, we might be able to get there by helicopter, but we're better off hopping on the Arctic Umiaq Ferry which serves the south-western coastline down to Qaqortoq (see inset). It takes 32 hours!

Good job the band we're going to see is bloody good. Small Time Giants are one of Greenland's most popular new bands. They perform mainly in English and released their debut album 'Stethoscope' in 2014. More recently, they composed and performed We Are The Arctic, the theme of the 2016 Arctic Winter Games. Small Time Giants' songs have an epic-sounding air to them, yet somewhat Nordic. The song I've chosen for you is called 3-9-6-0 and appears on the album. The video's decent too. You watch that I while work out how the heck to get to our next destination!

Holy shit, it doesn't get any easier! We have to go completely back the way we came (Qaqortoq > Nuuk by ferry; Nuuk > Reykjavik by plane) and fly back to Canada. Typically, I've chosen another remote destination - our furthest north yet - firmly rooted in the Arctic Circle. So (ready for this?), from Iceland we fly to Edmonton, Alberta, then catch a connecting flight north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territory. From here there's a daily plane service to Cambridge Bay, a hamlet on the southernmost tip of Victoria Island, Nunavut. This is true inuit country. Cambridge Bay's traditional name, Iqaluktuttiaq, means "good fishing place" and is known to have been occupied as far back as 4000 years ago. Today, it has three radio stations, two TV channels and broadband Internet!

It is also the hometown of Tanya Tagaq, an Inuk throat singer. I posted a short piece about Tanya two years ago. Nobody gave a shit. Well, I'm bigging her up again whether you like it or not. Tanya has made four studio albums to date, her most recent only emerging last month. She's worked with the likes of Björk and the Kronos Quartet, and covered songs by Pixies and Nirvana (she does a version of Rape Me on her new record). Her previous album 'Animism' was enormously acclaimed and won the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno Award. And rightly so, it's amazing. Her new one, entitled 'Retribution' is certainly an interesting listen. It's not one for dinner parties, unless the people you have round for dinner enjoy experimental electronic tribal throat-singing fusion type stuff. Take for instance this track. Bear in mind, this is the single...

Pretty out there, huh? But utterly fascinating at the same time. If you fancy something a shade more conventional, here's that Pixies cover from 2014's 'Animism'.

Back we go: Cambridge Bay > Yellowknife > Edmonton, and from here we can fly back to the USA, only this time we're heading west to Alaska, one of only two states disconnected from the rest of the country (the other is Hawaii, of course). It's bloody expensive - the cheapest flight is going to set me back nearly £400! But what choice do I have? It's a hell of a long way and I can't exactly get on a bike, can I?

Half of Alaska is inside the Arctic Circle, but its capital Anchorage isn't. Nonetheless, it's still a bit nippy this time of year. Alaska is the USA's largest state by area, its third least populous and its least densely populated. Half its entire population lives in or around Anchorage. But perhaps the most interesting thing I know about Alaska is that it once belonged to Russia, and the US purchased it in 1867 for 2 cents per acre! Bargain.

There's also a really good band from Anchorage called Historian. To date they've put out a couple of EPs, and this cracking single from 2014. It's a bit like early Foals meets Arcade Fire to these ears.

Next week we're back in Europe, but we're still a long way from home. And it might still be rather chilly.


  1. Marvellous work again, Robster: very much looking forward to be able to listen to the songs this evening!

  2. Thanks for singling out Alvvays from an impressive group out of the Great White North. That album is a big favorite around here.

  3. you're off your head!!!

    Brilliantly conceived and superbly entertaining series. You're proving to be the real anorak for world music....