Over the past year I've started picking up Guess Who albums - and Canned Wheat was proclaimed to be the masterpiece, the one that defined the career of the Canadian rockers. For the most part, this is a great album - but not the best in their catalog.
The album starts out with a fiery "No Time," backed up by an intense fuzz-guitar sound and Burton Cumming's distinctive vocals. The aggression and power at the end of this cut are overpowering; at five and a half minutes, this isn't the track you hear on the radio. This is nicely contrasted by the somewhat repetitive "Minstrel Boy," which seems to get boring after a few cycles of the chorus. It's highlighted by a nice bridge, but other than that it's mostly forgettable.
"Laughing" is a pretty familiar song; it's easy for some songs, like this one, to slip quietly into the background when playing on the radio. That hardly does justice to it - this song is easily one of the best pieces of music still played on the dial. Burton's immense emotional shifts, the simple rhythms that pull together with organs, jazz guitar, vocal overdubs - all of these combine to create this masterpiece. We're given a piano coda immediately following.
The mostly-restrained elegance of "Laughing" is followed up by "Undun," a very powerful and intense ride. It starts off with mere hints of its final throes. The scat, followed by a flute solo, highlights the middle section nicely. This song swaggers along for a while, until nearly the end, at which point the drums seem to become more urgent, the vocals more strained, and it builds to a slow intensity - not intense in volume, or tempo, but feeling. The coda, irrelevant as always, plays nicely with stereo effects and light guitar plucking. Listen through headphones. "6 AM Or Nearer" plays with flute, some pretty laid-back arrangements, and a chorus that doesn't really stick in the mind after the first listen. It's not a terrible song - but it does seem to be more filler than expected.
"Old Joe" is a pretty depressing song about an old man who, evidently, is pitied by the singer. It's a bit raw, which works well, and it doesn't linger - better than filler, but not outstanding.
The next song, "Of a Dropping Pin" is everything a radio single needs to be. It's energetic, fast - and it has a hook-laden chorus that stays with the listener even after the first listen. "Key" - which ends up degenerating into a very interesting, extended drum solo - languishes at first, slow and majestic, until eventually transitioning into a sudden burst of bombastic and entertaining guitar, played back and forth from left to right, and then leaving off into the aforementioned drums. The closer, "Fair Warning," is a bit of an odd track. It's got a gravely voice and jazzy, bluesy guitar blended in the back. Ostensibly it warns the listener away from being a Rock Star.
The two bonus tracks are good, and certainly a worthy addition, but they aren't of the level of most of the other tracks on the album. Canned Wheat truly is a continuous album; the interludes between just about every song reinforce this. It was meant to be listened to in a unit, and while listening from start to finish the impression of the music cements itself in the mind. Truly a classic - greater than the sum of its parts, although perhaps the Guess Who would do better.