When I was growing up, Canadian indie always seemed like an open and inclusive community to me, but it can be hard to notice who is being excluded when you feel included. In hindsight, it clearly lacked—and continues to lack—the kind of multicultural representation that this country is supposed to embody.
That said, there was a change within the scene that can be loosely tied to Tanya Tagaq’s Polaris Prize win in 2014 for her album Animism. The loud, proud display of Inuit culture Tagaq embodies, her incredible music, and her continuously rising profile has started a conversation, putting into motion an invigorated push for real cultural representation in Canadian music, kickstarted by artists. Whether that push has got us anywhere other than talking amongst ourselves is a whole other question. NOW Magazine’s 2016 cover story, entitled “Real talk about racism in the Toronto music scene” shines a light on the bleak realities of being a person of colour trying to break through playing music. Lido Pimienta—whose 2016 album La Capacidad was one of the best of the year—wrote about her experience trying to be part of the change within Toronto’s music scene. She spoke about how she is often tokenized as not only the one woman on the bill, but the only South American performer and the only act singing in Spanish. She told NOW, “I’ve been in Canada for 10 years, and when I think about Canada then and now, it’s the same. I’m still the one brown girl among all these white men.”
It is safe to say that the Canadian music industry is white male-centric from the top down. However, artists like Tagaq and Pimienta are making a difference and empowering others who don’t fit in or feel represented in the indie rock scene to go for it, even if the language you speak or sing in can’t be understood by the dunderheads there to enjoy the show.
Century Egg are a band from Halifax that live by the aforementioned artist’s example. Their latest EP, entitled River God, finds lead singer Shane Keyu Song singing in Mandarin and English. This detail, however big or small it may seem to you, makes Century Egg unique in Canada’s indie rock community. Of course, just like the above examples, it is not what makes the band great. River God is fifteen too-quick minutes of perfectly crafted, heartwarming pop songs that are ripe with an innocence and exuberance often missing from the shallow and snobby landscape of modern music. Robert Drisdelle’s guitar work and songwriting is deceptive and tasteful. Nick Dourado on bass and Tri Le on drums ground Drisdelle’s jazzier tendencies while remaining technical, propulsive, and melodic in their own right. While most of the songs on the EP are teched out pop numbers, they often have brief flashes of something a bit heavier which always leaves me wanting more. “Lost Angel” features the best example of this technique. For the most part, the song is reminiscent of early R.E.M. and features Keyu Song singing about someone who chose the wrong girl for a lover. Keyu Song’s melody—mirrored by Dourado—is the key to the song, as it’s been stuck in my head for weeks . The song becomes more than just catchy during the final bars of the bridge. Drisdelle lets out a perfect not-quite-solo that wouldn’t sound out of place in a heavy metal song, before landing right back into the wistful chorus; it’s so fucking awesome I could scream.
“River God” and “All This Unpleasantness” both expertly showcase the technical aspects of the band without ever feeling like they are being difficult on purpose. “Sunshine Realize” could be the love song of the year. Lyrically, it is personal and honest. Keyu Song sings directly to her lover—who happens to be Drisdelle—about how proud she is of them and how great it would be to just forget all their plans and sit in the sunshine, drinking wine. The band tiptoes behind her as she and Drisdelle escape this stressful scene, even if it’s just for the length of the song. Closing number, “Day That Didn’t Exist” is a beautiful acoustic foottapper; I’m sure if Paul McCartney heard it, he would be mad he didn’t come up with it first.
In an interview with The Imposter, Keyu Song revealed one of the ways she goes about writing lyrics. She picks a pop song and writes down the highs, lows, and the emotional arc of the melody. She then applies that arc to her own melodies. This insight is fascinating because in listening to Century Egg there is a trust I’ve been able to develop. The songs sound familiar, but not suspiciously so. There is also an innocence this EP that, once again, is refreshing. An indie band that doesn’t sound jaded in 2017 is a goddamn miracle in my books, but it’s more than that. I find myself agreeing with Bandcamp user aquakultre: “Century Egg takes me back to when I was 5, hunting snakes, and eating wild blackberries. Everyone has that something that makes them reminiscent of their childhood. Mine happens to be this band.”* River God isn’t nostalgic in an icky or cheap way; it sounds and feels too real for that. It removes the baggage of modern life and manages to sound like the first time you fell in love with a person, a song, or a place. It feels innocent but not infantile.
Century Egg’s music also manages to sounds political while avoiding explicitly political subject matter. It feels like the band’s existence is political in and of itself. In a recent episode of CBC Radio’s Ideas, about science, its limits, and its future, Margaret Wertheim talked about stagnancy within physics. She theorizes that the lack of diversity in the field has put a limit on what can be discovered;that different experiences and perspectives can lead to greater understanding,different approaches, and better ideas. Maybe indie rock has been plagued with the same problem and Century Egg are here to help.
*aquakulture’s comments have been edited for clarity