The Consumer Goods formed in Winnipeg, MB in 2005 around a set of angry and unflinching emotional responses to a world on its head. Songwriter Tyler Shipley, then 23, surrounded himself with a cadre of musicians drawn from the best of Winnipeg’s always-fertile music scene and charged them with animating the angst that gave that first crop of songs its edge. The result was a shimmering and ambitious piece of work that surprised critics expecting a learning-curve debut from a local artist. Complete with DIY artwork stamped with a hand-carved image of anti-capitalist graffiti, “Pop Goes The Pigdog!” shot to the top of local charts and established the band in the national scene with much exposure on CBC radio. In particular, critics seemed to agree that what set this record apart was that its anger felt neither contrived nor naive; unlike so much of what passes as ‘political’ music, this was an articulate and thoughtful engagement with the world.
Indeed, that insistence on intellectual rigor is what made 2007’s “Happy Bidet” arguably the best in the band’s catalogue. Written during a tumultuous 8-month span that saw Shipley move from the comfortable Winnipeg scene to the bustle and alienation of Toronto, the record featured a band at the height of its craft; its thirteen tracks were recorded in just one day, but come off as a perfectly polished meditation on an American Empire at war with everyone and everything. The record seemed to tap directly into the absurdity of Bush-era idiocy and violence, and the folly that a generation was striding arrogantly into. Unlike its predecessor, “Happy Bidet” turned the anger into a sublime joke; Shipley lamented the attack on women’s reproductive rights by imagining George W. Bush looking for a back-alley coat-hanger abortion (“Rovie Wade”) and advised the sun to stop shining in Arab skies, lest it be labeled a terrorist and bombed by American F-16s (“Sun Oh Sun.”) In a world so screwed up, ridiculing the bad guys seemed like the only way to cope, and the glowing response to the record seemed to confirm that. The mainstream radio popularity of “…Sam Katz,” a clever polemic aimed at Winnipeg’s mayor (“I know it’s not easy running a city, a business and a baseball team,” says Shipley mockingly), indicated that there was a real appetite for political critique that came with a wink and a nod. Critics almost universally raved about the record, which was nominated for a CBC Radio 3 Award, and the band became a legitimate fixture in the Canadian indie consciousness.
But somewhere along the way, giggling behind the backs of George Bush and Dick Cheney became an inadequate outlet for Shipley’s ever-present preoccupation with injustice. Unwilling to engage in self-satisfied mockery at the expense of a caste of already-unpopular right-wingers, the Consumer Goods’ third release was a sharp re-engagement with the outrage that characterized “Pop Goes The Pigdog!” coloured by a manic and diabolical absurdity that reflected a similarly erratic period in Shipley’s personal life. “The Anti-Imperial Cabaret” chose harder targets - relentlessly satirizing the police, the military, the press, even the state itself - in a manner once described as "maniacally surreal." For instance, "Serve and Protect, Uh!" featured Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers fetishizing their tasers; "The Terminator Rules" had undocumented workers celebrating their poverty in Arnold Schwarzenegger's California; "Day Job at the DND" followed a lonely Ottawa civil servant paper-pushing his way through a foreign occupation. As a foil to the "Happy Bidet" focus on America, this record insisted on bringing the critique to Canadian soil, even implicating the CBC in “Hockey Night in Afghanada,” a devastating and unflinching indictment of the violence and racism legitimated by Don Cherry and Ron MacLean’s weekly intrusion into Canadiana-at-large.
Despite the immense popularity of "Hockey Night in Afghanada," which was accompanied by a comically rough hand-drawn video and submitted to the CBC for consideration as the new theme song for "Hockey Night in Canada," the record did not garner the same kind of critical praise, as commentators seemed reluctant to endorse the take-no-prisoners approach. Even Shipley himself acknowledged that “The Anti-Imperial Cabaret” produced a certain kind of discomfort for its unapologetic denunciations, in which even the author was not spared. But if this unforgiving approach alienated some listeners it was, ironically, also the record’s strength; while ostensibly plunging off the lyrical deep end, it was ultimately an honest reflection of Shipley’s own struggles to grapple with his own position in a profoundly messed up world. Indeed, the ambitious cross-Canada tour that accompanied the release in 2008 was remarkably apt; after about a dozen shows, and with momentum growing, Shipley suffered a serious back injury and the tour was cut short by his hospitalization and recovery. A breaking point was reached.
In the following year, Shipley tried to answer the questions he had asked himself on “The Anti-Imperial Cabaret,” throwing himself deeper and more effectively into the political struggles that had animated so much of the Consumer Goods’ catalogue. It was a much-needed intervention. In 2009, Shipley recorded a bluegrass record under his own name documenting a three-month strike at York University where he taught, and in 2010 he emerged with a new band and a somewhat different approach. The ruthless irony he employed on earlier projects was no longer tenable; irony had become the new black, applied with post-modern detachment to any situations or questions that seemed complicated, in order to avoid the hard work of determining and acting on ethical principles. The moment demanded a re-appraisal of sincerity, and the Consumer Goods – never inclined to take the easy way out – are embracing the challenge with vigor. In June 2010, they sang “we got friends beaten by the cops; the older we get the beatin’ never stops,” only hours before finding themselves facing riot cops on Toronto's Queen Street West in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history during the 2010 G-20 Toronto summit. More than ever, this is a band that is engaged in its place. Plans for a fourth record are in the works.
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