Bag of Waters (Heathen Schooner Edition)

Phonautograph Records • 2022

The remixed and remastered tenth-anniversary edition of Expwy’s Bag of Waters remains one of the finest lo-fi DIY albums of the 2010s.

Oh, the wild and halcyon days of the 2010s. Remember them? Carefree days void of a pandemic and overflovving with too many bands using ‘vv’ instead of a ‘w’. If it feels too early to romanticize a decade barely gone, consider this: how many great digital-only releases from 2010 to 2020 have already been lost to history? Years from now, no one will find these albums in dusty bins in the back of used record stores. If we’re lucky, someone may still have the antiquated technology to retrieve a zip file off an old hard drive found in a basement or closet. Still, there’s a high likelihood that many great albums will disappear if they’re not adequately archived or dusted off and brought back to life, say every ten years or so.

Although a planned physical version of 2012’s Bag of Waters is not in the cards (right now) for Expwy’s Matt LeGroulx, his recently released tenth anniversary “Heathen Schooner Edition” of Bag of Waters is as good a place as any to start documenting the golden age of digital music. From 2010 to 2014 (when LeGroulx officially retired the name), Expwy released a robust ninety-nine songs (by my count), all of them as name-your-price downloads. While one (2013’s Deep Joy) got a physical release (on cassette through Kinnta Records), many found a home in the hearts of fans across the country who gravitated to LeGroulx’s often nostalgic-sounding guitar work. LeGroulx hit on a sound and style that I hesitate to call formulaic because that would suggest it was calculated; his technique and tone feel more natural and innate than that. He wasn’t the first and only to lean into lo-fidelity sounds and rough-around-the-edges arrangements, but no one anywhere came close to making music as impressive and accomplished as his run of Expwy releases. 

You might dismiss that last sentence as hyperbole, but I dare you to download the remixed and remastered Bag Of Waters (Heathen Schooner Edition) and tell me that I’m wrong. LeGroulx’s instinct for melody is always impeccable (one of my favourites being “Foppish gallant and scarecrow thin”) and is only usurped by his penchant for going left when you expect him to go right. That style of against-the-grain songwriting is a double-edged sword that often wounds otherwise great songs. For the most part, Expwy comes away unscathed when playing around with melodic expectations. “Reduced to vanity smiles” is like a 70s-era amusement park ride deemed dangerous and unacceptable by today’s standards but remains a chaotic and careening favourite of thrillseekers who remember it; Once you get on, you never want to get off. 

If I ask LeGroulx about the T. Rex influence on “I lost a million narrow steps to a hardluck cockeye” I fully believe he’d reply, “Who?” Anyone following his Twitter feed knows LeGroulx is always on the hunt for new musical explorations, none of which seem to centre on traditional rock or pop touchstones. And yet, Bag of Waters remains one of the finest lo-fi DIY albums of the 2010s. It is a masterclass in jangly hooks, blown-speaker sonics, plush, fuzzy guitar riffs, and lyrical inscrutability, almost to the point of being impenetrable. As the song titles suggest, Epxwy was never wanting when it came to words, but that LeGroulx could effortlessly marry a Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman-worthy melody to lines like “If you come into my house / I will bake you up some muffins / If you loved her madly wolfpack / Oxen snowplow mountain rangers” (“Pack away your knives and pack away your doves”) is untouchable. 

And yet sadly — almost criminally — Expwy remains an under-the-radar artist perilously close to the edge of extinction. With no physical artifacts left behind to let the world know he was here, LeGroulx is at the mercy of databases and digital archives to keep his legacy alive. In 2011, of Bag of Waters’s predecessor, Total Gold, an astute blogger* wrote: “LeGroulx’s songs can be challenging, for sure, but isn’t that what music and art should do? We moan that populist pap is indistinguishable from one artist to another, and we complain when an artist tries to do something out-of-the-box for being too much work for our mushy brains to process. The charm of Expwy is that LeGroulx is exploring intellectual and artistic themes, being influenced by Italian Renaissance madrigal composers and the Flaming Lips alike, and he’s not precious or pretentious about it. Any music buff worth the weight of their vinyl collection would be foolish not to give Expwy a thorough listen.” Bag of Waters (Heathen Schooner Edition) is still a name-your-price download, so what better time than the present to dip your toe into this musical treasure from the past? Go ahead, dive in; the Bag of Waters is still as warm and wickedly awesome today as it was ten years ago.

*The hesitantly self-referencing author, who believes that phrase in and of itself has the potential to be a great Expwy song title.

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