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If anyone can lay claim to the title of "Most Canadian Band Ever", the Rheostatics certainly can make a compelling case, with songs about hockey, Saskatchewan, Canadian painters, and with cover versions of songs by other Canadian artists (Gordon Lightfoot, Jane Siberry). Of course, being loved by Canada's top-selling band, the Tragically Hip, doesn't hurt either.
The Rheostatics were formed in 1980 in Etobicoke, Ontario, when the members of the band were still too young to drink in the clubs where they played. Two early tapes were released under the name Rheostatics & the Trans Canada Soul Patrol, but according to rhythm guitarist/vocalist Dave Bidini, copies are very rare and fans probably "shouldn't even bother" trying to get ahold of them.
After a few early personnel changes, the band finally gelled with the lineup of Bidini, lead guitarist/vocalist Martin Tielli, bassist/vocalist Tim Vesely, and drummer Dave Clark. The first official Rheostatics release was 1987's Greatest Hits. Though a hit at college radio and on late-night CBC programming, the independent album wasn't much of a commercial success, though it spawned the cult hit "The Ballad of Wendel Clark, Pts. I & II." Melville came out after a four-year break, and showed a great musical maturation; where Greatest Hits was jangly and awkward, Melville was accomplished and confident. This album also showed the band stretching out into longer, more complex songs with less conventional lyrical matter.
Whale Music followed in 1992, continuing the direction started on Melville, but with stronger material and better musicianship. The album was named after the novel by Paul Quarrington, about an eccentric recluse named Desmond Howl who created symphonic pop masterpieces in his basement studio. After a listen to Whale Music, it's hard to imagine any other band more up to the task of reproducing Howl's work, which is exactly why Quarrington hired the band to compose the soundtrack for the film of Whale Music. Thus, when the Whale Music soundtrack came out in 1994, the band was in the curious position of having two albums with exactly the same name. Though mostly instrumental, the soundtrack album spawned an actual hit single, "Claire."
Between the time the band finished the tracks for the Whale Music movie and its eventual release, the band (then signed to Sire) took much of the instrumental material from the soundtrack, reworked it, and added lyrics. Much of this material wound up on the Introducing Happiness album, which ended up on shelves before the soundtrack itself. Introducing Happiness was an all-over-the-map kind of album, drawing together music from many different styles, including punk, country, pop, and progressive. Fan reaction to the album was polarized, with many hailing it as a classic, and others oddly proclaiming it a pop sell-out. After the album's release, Dave Clark bowed out of the band to pursue his own interests, and the band was released from its contract with Sire.
After a shakedown period with new drummer and multi-instrumentalist Don Kerr, the Rheostatics were commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada to compose a 40-minute piece honoring the painters the Group of Seven. Confounding expectations after the pop gem "Claire," this mostly instrumental piece became their next album, Music Inspired by the Group of Seven, with the band back on the Drog label. Shortly afterwards, the more pop-oriented album The Blue Hysteria brought the band back into familiar (yet eclectic) territory.
For many fans, the 1997 release of Double Live was like a dream come true. While the band hadn't ever achieved much commercial success with their albums, they had achieved a great deal of respect and critical acclaim for their live shows, both from fans and other musicians. Much of the tour supporting The Blue Hysteria was an opening slot on the Tragically Hip's cross-country tour. Despite this prominent spot on the bill and shout-outs from Hip lead singer Gord Downie (listen to the beginning of the Tragically Hip live album Live Between Us for proof), the Rheostatics still had a hard time breaking through to an audience hungry for disposable pop fluff. Although much of this experience is detailed in Bidini's book On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock, Double Live is ultimately the better document, pulling together songs recorded before puzzled stadium crowds, indifferent pub audiences, and rabid fans in cozy clubs. In addition to many of the band's better-known numbers, Double Live also included a number of rarities and long-lost gems.
Long favorites of late-night radio in Canada, the Rheostatics were asked to contribute to the last program of CBC's long-running Nightlines. For this special show, the band put together a sound collage consisting of new songs, some older material, and bits that were more like skits. This became the band's next album, The Nightlines Sessions, though it remains more an oddity than a substantial contribution to the band's catalog.
Having long since dispensed with the pretense that they were a conventional rock band, the Rheostatics chose a different path once again with the Story of Harmelodia album. Ostensibly a children's album, the CD came packaged inside a jewel-case-sized hardcover book containing a story by Bidini and hand-painted illustrations by Tielli (who had also contributed artwork to nearly all of the band's previous albums). Despite the focus of the album, the album remained appealing to the adults who made up the bulk of the band's fan base.