On Second Thought
The Sycamores - Farewell to Deseronto






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Any music fan will tell you there's something special about the buried treasures. It's obvious from the words we use to talk about them. There's an element of mania in amassing the hard-to-get just because, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the sweet and sour of having an album that's just yours, that others haven't heard about and couldn't buy if they had; the conflicting impulses to clutch it to yourself, hoard it and yet vainly try to spread the love. Most of us don't really want the things we care about to languish in obscurity.

The Sycamores came from Halifax. They never had an album released on anything it would make sense to call a label. They “toured” Ontario once (if five shows counts). All that is left at their old website are the following lines, complete with typos: “the sycamores are offically done, for life. in the words of sycamore founding member jmrf, thanks for coming out.” The magic of the internet lets you look at their old bio; self-loathing and bad luck practically drip out of it. As far as I can tell the only two constant members were vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist/writer/engineer Corey Walling and the sort-of aforementioned James Fitzgerald on drums, although on the two albums I own Chris Kline and Ratty Dave Chisholm held steady on guitar and bass (both on both, apparently).

I learned about them in the most tenuous way possible. During a Canadian Film class, for one of only two times during my undergrad years, someone recognized my name from the student newspaper (a sensation pleasing and mortifying in equal measures). Jamie and I hung out every so often, and I think the second time I saw him he pressed this blue, beat up CD case into my hand. He was positively evangelical about this band he'd caught by chance at a random show. I can't remember if I paid for my copy of Farewell to Deseronto or its follow-up, Warez (I hope I did), but I do know I emailed Walling after my first listen and arranged to get my own copy.

When someone, even a friend, is insistent about a record, it’s easy to get cagey. “Props to Benny Hinn” didn't help matters; in the future I would learn that the sample of an impassioned televangelist talking about persistence was bitterly funny in the context of a band that wielded failure the way some bands brandished love, but at first it just sounded pretentious. But then, “The Reunion.”

I can't write synesthesia for you. Or otherwise evoke that rising guitar and bass scree shattering into a fucking dirty-sounding riff, then surging back in as Walling wails “We held out for more lucrative rejections / We're broke and sore and vitamin deficient.” I remember corresponding with Walling and trying to ask, in my clumsy way, how he had so magnificently stitched together an album that grappled with not succeeding, with being good and putting 110% in and still going home broken, how he had put every iota of envy and black humour and contempt and perverse self-belief into these forty minutes; what, if anything, could he do now?

He didn't know what I was talking about. It was just a bunch of songs, he said. Which only reinforces my belief that the really great albums, the ones so vivid they leave a taste in your mouth, can't be planned. Corey was always personable and nice and normal over email; it was only in making this music that he seized his destiny, his one chance (there is a magic in Farewell to Deseronto the Sycamores never quite recaptured) to make the greatest album about being in a collapsing band that ever barely squeaked out of the studio. Chanting “Bands / Make way / For the next / New wave” in “School,” shouting “Turn! Diss the crowd!” at the end of the album-closing “Westside” in a final moment of Pyrrhic glory; playing a hundred impossibly hooky guitar and keyboard parts, leaving in all the in-jokes but never letting them take over. Ratty Dave deadpanning “Straight outta Compton” in response to a sincere question from Walling on “Tinji Ko” never fails to make me laugh, but there's a genuine ache there as well; Ratty just happens to be goofing off in the middle of it.

For a band that constantly frayed, Deseronto is tight. “Real School” is one long ascent, “The Driving Song” pure nitro, “Dartmouth Dave and His Dartmouth Country Rock Band” impeccably sloppy and mocking, “RCA” intricately gnarled and even a little groovy. But as good as they are as a group, it's always Walling's show—our cynical, exhausted, arrogant, immensely sympathetic guide. If the Sycamores sucked, his near-palpable frustration at the inescapable fact that talent does not equal success would be laughable. As it is, you just feel for the guy.

While I wish I had more people to share the Sycamores with, there seems to be something deep in their music that resists it, some stubborn quality that says Walling's themes have to be recapitulated in the band's story. In the middle of the keen and thrash of “The World,” Walling murmurs to his buddy
Hey, Dave, don't you know?
The closest point between two lines
Is not to go at all
They never did, but they were beautiful.


By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2006-06-13
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