Home > Music > Fresh Tracks on an Open Story Road: The Closing of the Wheat Pool

Fresh Tracks on an Open Story Road: The Closing of the Wheat Pool

The End of the Wheat Pool

In an announcement that was both sad and unfortunate and yet elegantly fitting, Edmontonian roots-rock band the Wheat Pool announced via their website that they would play their farewell show at the Pawn Shop on Whyte Avenue on March 23, 7 years to the day after their first gig together. Although the band produced only two full-length records and an EP (as well as a solo record from singer and bassist Mike Angus which may suggest a way forward from here) and never quite broke out of the Canadian independent music ghetto that is CBC Radio 3 into larger-scale success, they will be deeply missed by this one blogger at least.

As I have previously hinted at in this space, I found the Wheat Pool to be the band that most indie fans felt (or wanted) the Rural Alberta Advantage to be. Although both bands craft prairie elegies that express a more personal form of Western alienation, the RAA do so in the fashionable poses of the big-city indie scene in which they have situated themselves (namely, Toronto) while the Wheat Pool grounded their restless musical wandering in the honest vernacular of country and rock. Even the vaunted local references diverged, with the RAA snatching at large-scale Albertan tragedies (the Frank Slide, the 1987 Edmonton tornado) while the Wheat Pool hold their sights on personal touchstones at home and elsewhere.

But the imminent end of the Wheat Pool is not a time for measuring art against other art or for the underdog’s lamentation at the misguided tastes of the people. Although the band released more music and gained wider notice after I moved away from Edmonton at the end of 2008 than before, the band and especially their debut album Township will forever be associated in my mind with my last year in the wintry Albertan capital.

As strong as its wider-ranging follow-up Hauntario was, Township will remain, to my mind, their finest achievement. It’s an album marked by the sort of nomadic youthful wanderlust that leaves broken hearts and barely-healed bruises in its wake, its lyrical imagery balanced exquisitely and vivified with tense passion by vocalist brothers Mike and Robb Angus while being pressed inexorably forward by Glen Erickson’s gracefully detailed lead guitar lines. The melodic resonance of the Wheat Pool’s songs accumulates gradually, like a January snowfall, until their weight and splendor is undeniable.

This effect was most prominent in Township’s closer, “Phone Book”, perhaps their greatest single composition. While the song is a bittersweet reminiscence of the end of a spent relationship and a tribute to the saving grace of a new one, its tone of resigned finality allowed it to easily imprint itself upon my departure from the city of my birth to wander on my own uneasy adventure, for good, ill, or the usual measures of both that tend to be dispensed to us mere mortals. As great as it is, though, there are many other great songs, too: irresistible rockers like “Geographic Centre of Canada” and “I’m Not Here”, the ode to the poverty-stricken in “Emily Carr”, the haunting and tremendous Louis Riel ballad “Peniel, SK”, the aching, poetic “Italy”. For a band that has left us with so few songs, the Wheat Pool crafted many memorable ones.

Although it can never occupy the place that “Phone Book” does for purely esoteric and associational reasons, Hauntario’s emotional pinnacle “Lefty” is perhaps a more complete summation of the Wheat Pool’s depth of affect. It’s a song of invariable transitions: fathers going to war, families saying “so long, Ontario” and moving West, prairie storm-fronts growing and receding, and that ultimate transition, from life to death, from the corporeal to ashes and dust. And yet amongst the transitory, there is that which lingers, as impermanence is forever foiled by permanence: “Your brothers, they look the same / as your two boys”. This is music that forgives but can’t ever forget, and whose remembrance is its own species of joyful pain.

There’s a line in “Lefty” that is a timeless synecdoche for the Wheat Pool’s humble, underappreciated triumphs: “Two sets of fresh tracks on an open story road.” It seems that the Brothers Angus, with Erickson and drummer Stephane Dagenais, followed that road as long as it remained open, and have left off making tracks lest they become ruts. For a band so focused on that which has been lost to vanish themselves is practically poetic in its justice, but the Wheat Pool leaves much more behind them than a simple tombstone.

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