Arts & Crafts: 2003-2013

You’d be hard-pressed to name a more important, more successful music label in Canadian history than Arts & Crafts. 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the label started by little-known indie musician Kevin Drew and major label expat Jeffrey Remedios, that would go on to revolutionize the Canadian record industry, riding the wave of Broken Social Scene’s classic You Forgot It In People, and benefitting immeasurably by star-in-the-making Feist telling her international label, Polydor, that it would be a deal-breaker if they didn’t let Arts & Crafts have her Canadian release rights. While it may seem odd for a label, rather than a band, to release a best-of collection, given the emphasis Arts & Crafts placed from the start on the creative development of their close-knit community of artists, it only seems appropriate for all of them to take a well-deserved victory lap together under a common banner. But the fact that only five “hits” here are post-2007 quietly raises questions about the future of the label, the bands on the roster, and the Toronto scene that gave rise to all of it.

The first disc compiles the label’s most recognizable hits, and it’s tough to argue with any of the selections: BSS’s ‘7/4 (Shoreline)’ deserves to be immortalized as one of the best songs in Canadian history; ‘Mushaboom’ proves Feist was always destined to be a star; The Most Serene Republic’s ‘Content Was Always My Favorite Color’ captures the creative ambition of the label’s artists in its early years; Stars’ ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ remains their high-water mark, a perfect song in every sense; Jason Collett’s ‘I’ll Bring The Sun’ remains a classic; and Dan Mangan’s ‘Rows Of Houses’ affirms his current status as the brightest star in A&C’s sky.

The second disc, meanwhile, compiles b-sides and rarities from A&C artists that range from decent to very good. Timber Timbre’s compelling contribution shows the evolution of the label from BSS and similar-sounding artists to a more diverse and even folk-oriented roster; The Hidden Cameras submit probably the most instantly likeable song, the edgy, efficient, deceptively melodic ‘Mind, Matter and Waste’; Jason Collett’s ‘False Cassandra’ relies on a well-worn folk rhythm that fits his voice like a glove; BSS’s ‘Deathcock’ would slide fairly effortlessly onto the second side of YFIIP; and the by-now well-known Feist/Constantines cover of ‘Islands in the Stream’ remains classy and resonant.

Meanwhile, Sally Seltmann submits yet another literal-to-a-fault song about asserting feminine independence in the face of solitude; Amy Millan’s ‘She Got By’ is an unspectacular but interesting surprise, as she sings over what for her would probably pass for something approaching bar rock, a far cry from the tears-and-whiskey country of her first solo record, even more distant from the indie-rock-for-breastfeeding-moms of her second; ‘I Want A New Drug’ is good enough that it’s inexcusable it was left off Apostle of Hustle’s Eats Darkness album; and Kevin Drew’s 12-minute epic ‘Apology’ is a mini-study in the evolution of A&C itself, progressing from a violin-dominated instrumental that would have been entirely at home on BSS’s Feel Good Lost to a mid-tempo drama that could have been a Forgiveness Rock Record b-side, to a spoken word overdub in the style of Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project. The question for b-sides records is always whether the songs can hold their own enough to justify their release, and the vast majority of songs here do.

But there’s a larger issue looming over this record: scanning the list of artists on this compilation, it’s hard to escape the sense that the social scene, as it were, is slowly winding down. Broken Social Scene have been on hiatus for two years and evidently have no plans to record again; Stars and The Most Serene Republic have been off the roster for years (Stars haven’t released a better-than-average record since they left, and TMSR hasn’t released anything); The Stills long ago disbanded; Zeus is represented here by a should-have-been-great song from a lackluster sophomore album; it’s been four years since Apostle of Hustle made a record, and six years since they made a good one; and New Buffalo just never had the edge necessary to make the impact her label-mates did .

A&C has gotten strong domestic mileage in recent years from the likes of Timber Timbre and, especially, Mangan; and Feist, Collett and Los Campesinos! continue to release quality records, but there’s a momentum that just feels missing. For years, I would buy every A&C release because I put that much stock in the A&C brand. But now, as the label increasingly releases records they didn’t actually make, but rather simply acquired the Canadian rights to (Bloc Party, Cold Specks, Ra Ra Riot), and newer bands fail to impress (Zulu Winter), suffer growing pains (Zeus), stay in the incubator so long their momentum runs out before their records are even released (The Darcys, Gold & Youth, Bishop Morocco), or mysteriously disappear altogether (Still Life Still), it’s hard to shake the feeling that A&C probably peaked six years ago (likely with Feist’s The Reminder in 2007 – in retrospect, it was maybe prescient that A&C first promised this “Arts & Crafts Essentials and Rarities” release on CD inserts way back in 2008), and that BSS’s Forgiveness Rock Record and its subsequent tour (during which all other label business seemed to stop) may have represented the symbolic end of an era. It’s not so much that A&C doesn’t still have heavyweights on the roster – BSS, Feist, Mangan and Collett take care of that; rather, it’s that it’s been years since A&C really broke an artist that captured our imaginations (Los Campesinos!, in 2008, were probably the last). 11 of the 16 “hits” in this package come from the label’s first five years; only five have been released in the last five years. In short, a retrospective like this makes you remember how exciting and vibrant those first five years were, but also makes you realize it’s been a long time since it really felt that way.

A&C is one of Canadian music’s all-time great success stories, both commercially and artistically; these songs represent some of the best of the best of what for about ten years was an absolute golden age of Canadian indie music, and this compilation is an appropriately dignified, richly deserved, although bittersweet, victory lap for the label that was the epicenter of that era. These songs still feel as vital now as they did when they were brand new, and I, for one, will probably take them to the grave. The golden age may be over, but what a golden age it was.