Clean harmonies, acerbic lyrics can't erase déjà vu feeling

review of live show at Lee's Palace, Toronto, December 13, 1996

by Alan Niester, Globe and Mail, December 16, 1996

When ex-Edmontonian Moe Berg named his rock'n'roll combo the Pursuit of Happiness back in the mid-eighties, it probably just seemed like a convenient handle. Yet as the pages have been torn from the calendar, the band's name appears to have become, for frontman Berg, all too accurate. Berg's fans and followers have suffered with him through loves found and lost, the suckerpunch of growing older in a young man's world, and the frustration of chasing stardom when the cards are inexplicably stacked against him.

TPOH could just as well have been headlining at Maple Leaf Gardens Friday night, instead of The Tragically Hip. That it wasn't, that Berg and company were crammed onto the smallish stage at Lee's Palace (traditionally a venue for young up-and-comers) and performed in front of a medium- sized, late-night crowd, simply reaffirms the fact that life ain't necessarily fair.

TPOH put on its usual riff-laden, lyrically acerbic show, but there was a sense of been-there, heard- that about the whole thing. Berg and his crew (guitarist Kris Abbott, bassist Brad Barker and drummer Dave Gilby, with added backing vocals by Jennifer Foster) were on hand primarily to pitch the songs from the band's latest release The Wonderful World of the Pursuit of Happiness. But listening to such newer numbers as Hate Engine and Carmalina juxtaposed with such older work as I'm An Adult Now and Cigarette Dangles suggests why the band's fortunes seem to be in decline.

First off, there hasn't been much growth in Berg's songwriting. Structurally, these newer, 1996 songs could just as easily have come from any of TPOH's earlier works like 1988's Love Junk or 1990's One Sided Story. True, Berg's lyrics are more explicit now (an affirmation, perhaps, that he has given up hope of more widespread radio play), and the mood was more acerbic, but the basic drums/bass/jangly guitar backing to Berg's piercing vocals feel like yesterday's news.

Perhaps that's because Berg is still relying on the influence of his hero Todd Rundgren for inspiration. The problem, of course, is that it's hard to say anything new yourself when your template hasn't had an original idea in two decades. So while newer numbers like What You Did To My Girl featured all the things that TPOH does best (the classic pop melody line, the clean harmony work), they hardly go anywhere that TPOH hasn't been before.

This curfew-busting set did have its moments (the simple and McCartney-esque Tara's Theme was an unexpected and pleasant diversion), but it showed that TPOH seems to be spinning its wheels, churning out its classic songs instead of making a much-needed decision about where to go from here.

Copyright © 1996 Globe Information Services

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