Album review: The Tragically Hip, Phantom Power (1998)



By Steve Newton

I took my wife, Dawn, to see the Tragically Hip at Thunderbird Stadium last summer when she was seven months pregnant with our first child, Tess Georgia. They say a body is susceptible to sonic vibrations in utero, and I’d have to agree, ’cause now, when I put 10-month-old Tess in her Jolly Jumper and crank up the new Hip tune “Fireworks”, she bounces around like it’s a Ramones gig at the Commodore.

Tess must be a chip off the old block, ’cause I’ve always had a soft spot for raging Hip tunes like “Coconut Cream” and “Fire in the Hole”. But anyone who’s followed the band’s glorious evolution from late-’80s groove merchants to bold guitar-rock explorers knows that it’s capable of moving listeners through more discriminating means as well.

When the Kingston quintet tones things down just a notch, as on “Vapour Trails”—the standout track from its new Phantom Power CD—the subtle buildup of raggedy guitars leads to an exhilarating clamour that would do Neil Young & Crazy Horse proud. I have no idea what singer-lyricist Gordon Downie is on about with declarations like “there’s nothing uglier than a man hitting his stride,” but the sheer dynamics of the tune put it on a rush-inducing par with the group’s most memorable songs, “Nautical Disaster” and “50 Mission Cap”.

When the band takes a mellower tack, as on the whimsical “Bobcaygeon”, it recalls the laid-back tone of the vibe-laced “Flamenco”, a noteworthy number from 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse that revealed the Hip in a delicate new light. As for Phantom Power’s heavily aired first single, “Poets”, it took a few listens, but eventually its slinky guitar interplay, stealthy bass throb, trash-can drumming, and decidedly weird lyrics won me over.

Such is the entrancing influence of Canada’s guitar-rock kings.

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