Published Nov 16, 2018Toronto has no shortage of musical flag-bearers when it comes to representing the city these days. But long before Drake and Broken Social Scene took it to a global scale, scrappy rockers Lowest of the Low were romanticizing Hogtown in the 1990s with their profound folk-punk. By name-dropping local watering holes such as the Only Cafe and Sneaky Dees, as well as long forgotten indie rockers Dig Circus (see Fembots), frontman Ron Hawkins and his band of merrymakers presented an every-person snapshot of Toronto life.
Formed in 1990 out of the ashes of straight-edge punks Popular Front, the Lowest of the Low had a quick, meteoric rise within the city's limits. When they couldn't lure any major labels, they used some DIY chutzpah to self-release their debut album, Shakespeare My Butt…, and ended up turning into heroes of the independent music scene. Soon they were dominating indie charts and campus radio, but also becoming favourites of Toronto's CFNY 102.1 and MuchMusic.
Success found them a distro deal with major A&M for their followup, 1994's Hallucigenia, though the band would only last a few months longer, burning out before they could fade away. But as the decade went on, LOTL's following grew to a cult status, and the members reunited in 2000 for some gigs, which resulted in the live album, Nothing Short of a Bullet.
The reunion produced two more studio albums — 2004's Sordid Fiction and 2017's Do the Right Now — but the band only really solidified as a full-time band of late, albeit without co-founder Stephen Stanley. Still, Hawkins and David Alexander have kept the bleeding going, notching a deal with Warner Music Canada.
For their first release, they've taken advantage of the offer by compiling a career-spanning vinyl box set, cheekily titled, Shakespeare... My Box!! Across seven discs, the band have cleared the vault, offering reissues of Shakespeare My Butt… (originally released in 2010), the first-ever vinyl release for both Hallucigenia and Sordid Fiction, last year's Do the Right Now, and a new compilation of outtakes, demos and live cuts titled Thrifty, Thrifty, Thrifty. In addition, a 24 page full-colour book, hand-written lyrics, a poster and album cover stickers fill it up.
There is no denying that their debut album is the MVP of the set. Now 27 years old, Shakespeare My Butt… hasn't lost a drop of its charm. The album became one of the biggest indie releases in Canadian history for a reason: the songs were built with heavy melodies and romantic Canadiana that made them relatable in the same respect as, say the Tragically Hip or Hayden. Hawkins' songwriting had the capacity to jump from melancholy beer shanty "Rosy and Grey," or dejected love song "Bleed A Little While Tonight," to feel-good rockers like the double harmony-boosted "Eternal Fatalist" and "Salesmen, Cheats and Liars" on a whim. To anyone locked into the early '90s Canadian indie scene, Shakespeare was a revelation, a record that acted as a true document of its time.
Hallucigenia didn't stray far from its predecessor. The success they allowed them to hire producer Don Smith, whose talents they put to good use. Known for his work on seminal releases by the Tragically Hip and 54-40, Smith added some crunch and heft to the band's heavier rock songs. "Motel 30" and "Eating the Rich" definitely benefitted from Smith's influence, while earworms in "Pistol" and "Gamble" became staples of local radio for a reason. Overall it was the more dynamic record; however, the band's inability to keep it together meant that Hallucigenia would forever be stuck under Shakespeare's sizeable shadow.
Better late than never was a good motto for Sordid Fiction. Ten years on from Hallucigenia, LOTL returned for another shot. Of course, the independent music scene had moved on to the next gen, in which You Forgot It In People and Funeral were deemed classics. Produced by Ian Blurton, Sordid Fiction features some of Hawkins' best songs (the Weakerthans-referencing "A Casual Overdose," the power pop "Sincero"), but as an artefact from one of Canada's most fruitful periods, it doesn't quite match up to everything else that was happening at the time.
By the time LOTL got to their fourth LP, they were basically in nostalgia mode. Shakespeare had experienced a successful reissue campaign and the band were back in swing, ready to launch version 3.0. Do the Right Now found Hawkins, aware of the band's legacy, revisiting his youth as well as the lyrical themes he explored on Shakespeare. Admittedly a sequel to their debut (two songs even pre-date it: "Gerona Train" and "Something to Believe In"), Do the Right Now managed to recapture a lot of the original's spirit while adding a significant power pop influence ("Immortal," the title track). Had this been their sophomore album, who knows what their fate would have been?
For good measure, a disc of extras called Thrifty, Thrifty, Thrifty has also been included. Like any odds and ends compilation, this one is more for the die-hard Lowlifes in need of a live version of "Rosy and Grey" or a "Darkhorse" demo. Ill-advised is the "Do the Right Now (Human Kebab Remix)," a haywire experiment that turns the charging rock tune into a mess of bubbling synths and beat scratching. Nothing Short of a Bullet, the live album they cut in Buffalo and Toronto upon first reuniting, is strangely missing from the set, and would have been a better fit, but it's hard to complain about a freebie that has a few worthwhile tracks, like 2015's double A-side single, "The Kids Are All Wrong" and "In the Blink of an Eye." Also of note is the comp's sleeve, which features a shot of the brightly lit A&A Records & Tapes sign on Yonge Street circa the early '90s.
Shakespeare... My Box!! is not priced for every fan. It's a costly, but comprehensive collection that offers almost everything you'd need from Lowest of the Low. For those willing to pay its hefty price, this is a real treat, especially the resurrection of Hallucigenia, which had suffered from obscurity until now. Sure, Henry may need a new pair of shoes, but he'd probably rather have this box set instead. (Warner)