54•40 walks the walk with first indie release since the ’80s

MI0002337974

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 31, 2003

By Steve Newton

Although they started out in the early ’80s as indie artists on MoDaMu Records, local guitar-rockers 54•40 have been signed to major labels since 1986, first with Warner Bros. and then with Columbia/Sony. But with its 10th studio album, Goodbye Flatland, the band has let go the corporate apron strings, releasing the disc on its own SBEC (Smilin’ Buddha Enjoyment Complex) imprint. As vocalist Neil Osborne explains from his home in sunny Tsawwassen, it wasn’t particularly daunting for his group to go it alone after all these years.

“Not really,” he offers. “I mean, the record industry itself has taken a downturn, I suppose. There’s not as much money and enthusiasm; they seem to be more scared than anything else. So we just thought it was probably a good time for us to try this. We’d always talked about it; we always thought we could do it. And so it was time to walk the walk.”

Whether or not Goodbye Flatland will ever achieve the commercial success of previous 54•40 discs such as the platinum-in-Canada (100,000 copies sold) Trusted by Millions and Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret remains to be seen, but Osborne is optimistic. He points to the sizable following, locally and internationally, that the group has developed over the years. “Obviously,” he relates, “a lot of what a major label can do is expose a band, but we have already gone through that. People know who we are—at least a lot of people seem to.”

Music fans who’ve yet to get acquainted with 54•40 should note that Goodbye Flatland contains a plethora of propulsive, riff-driven rock tunes. One such ditty, the single “Wish I Knew”, is currently the most-played song on local classic-rock station CFMI. The potentially hit-packed album was named after a chapter in American self-help guru Ken Wilber’s 1996 book, A Brief History of Everything. “He’s kind of a philosopher, spiritual guy,” explains Osborne, “and he’s got a lot of interesting things to say. He’s slightly arrogant, there’s no doubt about it, but you can agree with him or not. I quite enjoyed a few of his books so far.”

The words to every song on Goodbye Flatland appear on the quartet’s Web site (http://www.5440.com/); in the CD booklet, you’ll only find lyrics to the title track, accompanied by several bleak black-and-white photos of the undersides of bridges and birds in barren trees. “[Local photographer] Mark Maryanovich did all the photos,” Osborne notes, “and graphically it just seemed like having the space was more important than filling it. Those are all shots of Greater Vancouver, so it shows people—it shows ourselves—that we’re not all about the mountains in the tourist brochures, you know. There’s a depth to this city that is there as well.”

Visitors to 54•40’s site will notice that the band is scheduled to tour the U.K. next month, with a date at the fabled Cavern in Liverpool set for August 31. “That’s probably gonna be one of the most exciting things on that tour,” Osborne says of the upcoming gig at the Beatles’ old haunt. He does realize, however, that today’s Cavern isn’t the same actual room that hosted the Fab Four. “Oh, I’m sure it’s all about the postcards in the lobby.”

One needn’t jet off to Jolly Old England to see 54•40, though, as Osborne and his mates—guitarist Phil Comparelli, bassist Brad Merritt, and drummer Matt Johnson—are set to play the Plaza of Nations on Sunday (August 3). That show is particularly appealing in that it includes guest slots by both Blackie & the Rodeo Kings—the killer Canuck roots-rock combo of Colin Linden, Tom Wilson, and Stephen Fearing (see page 69)—and Vancouver country-bluegrass sensations the Be Good Tanyas. Osborne is especially psyched about having the fast-rising locals warm up the crowd. “They’re one of my favourite bands,” he raves. “And I don’t think they’re playing much at all this year, so it’s one of the few gigs they’re gonna actually do. I’m very excited about that.”

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