BBP!’s Album of the Week: ‘Sister Anthony,’ The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir (1990)

How does one pick a single album to review? One album out of literally thousands of contenders. For someone like me with a deep love of music…whose every post tends to be hyperbolic in its affection and often includes professions of something being my favourite something…song, album, side of music, Canadian record, prog record, rock record…how do you pick just one? This was the conundrum I faced when asked to pick one album and write a review about it. Any album. I considered Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Hounds Of Love by Kate Bush, Quadrophenia, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and a whole bunch of others before settling on an album that most people are probably unfamiliar with…many have probably never even heard of the band at all. I’m talking about Sister Anthony…the 3rd EP cassette by Toronto Funk Soul Rock collective The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, released in 1990 on their own Applaud The Potato records and reissued on CD in 1995 on Yonder Records.

So why this album? Is it my favourite album? Nope. It isn’t even my favourite album by The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir so why of all the albums I could choose would I pick this one? The reason is that on reflection I consider it to be the most pivotal, important album of my musical life. By 1990 I had fallen in love with Prog Rock and Classic Rock and New Wave…bands like Yes and Genesis and Marillion and Tears For Fears, Spoons, Men Without Hats, Blue Peter, The Who, Springsteen and a hundred others had already become a part of my ever-expanding musical lexicon.

In 1985 I saw The Bourbon’s first ever show at The Concert Hall in Toronto for High School Battle Of The Bands, which I would play at with my band Tempus Fugit, several years later. They were wild and fun and you can check out that whole first show here. With the studio time they were awarded for winning the competition, they recorded three songs which would end up being released as 1987’s First Taste Of Bourbon cassette EP. In 1989 they released the five song EP If Hell Had A House Band and they began touring across Canada as a (roughly) 8-piece band.

While A First Taste Of Bourbon is a respectable if slightly utilitarian release, If Hell Had A House Band was a much stronger statement and featured 5 great songs that featured heavily in their live shows at the time. In fact, two of the songs would end up being re-recorded by the band. “Ain’t It Better To Ignite Than To Explode?” was featured on their first CD Superior Cackling Hen in 1992 and “Decomposition Blues” on 1995’s ShyFolk. The other three songs were “Do You Believe?,” “Just Can’t Seem To Get My Poor Self Together,” and “Make ‘Em Laugh (Stanley).” By the time I rediscovered the band in 1990 none of these three songs were played very much live, if at all, though “Ignite” and “Decomposition” would be played through the end of the band’s existence in 1995. You can hear both of these early EPs here.

At some point in 1990, I distinctly recall listening to Q107 in Toronto who had an hour long show on Sunday Nights that featured up and coming local and Canadian indie bands. One night they played several songs from The Bourbon’s new Sister Anthony EP. I believe the songs played were “Worms,” “The Down,” and “Solitude Mama.” I was immediately impressed and later in 1990 saw my second BTC show on October 31 1990 at The Diamond Club (which would later become The Phoenix Concert Theatre). Dave Wall had long curly black hair at the time and was dressed up as Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl.

I bought Sister Anthony on cassette at this show. It was my first ever purchase of a Canadian indie band’s music and I played the shit out of that album. I mean there are some albums that people talk about wearing out from listening to it so much. is that album for me. The one I played until it was almost unplayable. I still have that cassette to this day.

The EP was produced by BTC and their manager Floyd Chan along with Jim Anderson. It was recorded and mixed at Chalet Studio in Claremont Ontario – which would go on to produce music by Barenaked Ladies, Chantal Kreviatzuk, Jane Siberry, The Pursuit Of Happiness, Blue Rodeo and many others including four RUSH albums. Additional recording was done at Number Nine Sound and Fifth Avenue Studio in Toronto. The album starts out with a clip of piano and vocals in what sounds like a room filled with people talking before fading out. It is only 30 seconds long before the horn blast intro of “Worms” erupts into instant funkiness. It was a live favourite despite being about the inevitability of death with its chorus proclaiming “Someday there’s gonna be worms crawling through my skull/It’s such a short that we’re hear breathing I want to know when I’m leaving that I used my time well”.  The Brown/Mercer penned “Worms” is also the first song by the band to feature a promotional video.

“The Down” by Dave Wall follows “Worms” and is a fairly short song that was always a fun live staple. The Wall/Mercer penned “Defy My Love” is a loose, funky tune that showcases Brown’s keys and Hardy’s horns. The beginning of the song always reminded me of the music that would appear at the intro of a late-night talk show. The last song on side one is the awesome “Death Is The Great Awakener” by Andrew Whiteman which was always an excellent song performed live. If I had to distill my earliest Bourbons experience down into one song it would be this one. The way it shifts tempo halfway through on the back of a great harmonica solo by Tortoise Blue is awesome. It was always a highlight of their live shows and would rev the crowd up into a dancing frenzy every time.  

Side 2 opens with a short, spoken word piano/guitar song titled “Nothing.” “He who is an ass and thinks himself to be a stag finds his mistake when he comes to leap the ditch” is the message – read into it what you will. Then comes the magnum opus of the EP and longest song title in the band’s catalog, “While We’ve Got Your Attention I’d Like To Point Out A Couple Of Things.” This Brown/Wall song is the third longest in the band’s entire studio output clocking in at 7:38. It also features amazing vocal interplay between Chris, Dave and Kate which is one of the great things about this band. I believe live they would refer to it as “A Flat.” It wasn’t played too often but when they did it was always a special treat, being one of my favourite songs by the band. The always fun “Solitude Mama” has the distinction of having one of the more collaborative writing credits, being a Mercer/Wall/Brown/Whiteman/Mercier composition. It is a sloppy, humorous plea for seclusion. It also features a Whiteman spoken element that is very reminiscent of his guide vocal directives which were left in the final mix of Broken Social Scene’s “Looks Just Like The Sun.” Last up is the William Blake poem “The Little Vagabond” put to music by Brown/Fenner. The original EP ended here and if you had an auto repeat function the tape would flip over and begin almost like it ended giving a symmetry/never ending nature to it.

In 1995 the EP was reissued on CD under the Yonder Records flag and added two songs to the release. “Put Your Head On” was a Dave Wall tune that was recorded by Bob Wiseman and used in the Highway 61 soundtrack. It was issued in a limited cassette single and a video was also produced for the song.

The second extra song on the CD is a live version of “As Right As They Want To Be” (from The Phoenix Concert Theatre in December 1993) of which the studio version had originally appeared on the cassette (and has never been issued on CD). I’ve included the studio version as well in the video below for completeness. It is more difficult to find than the Sister Anthony CD at this point. None of this material is available on any streaming platform at this time so here is a link to the full Sister Anthony album.

So what’s the big deal about this album? It didn’t contain the best songs they ever recorded and as noted it isn’t my favourite release by the band. Their full albums, Superior Cackling Hen from 1992, and ShyFolk in 1995, are vastly superior records. In some ways for me they are the equivalent of Jellyfish’s Bellybutton and Spilt Milk…it is almost impossible to decide which is better. Songs like “Grow,” “Afterglow,” “Rude Groove,” “Song For Sam And Richard,” “Love Like Nothing,” “All Peace” and the pinnacle of their output…the heartbreaking “Simple” are all superior songs to anything on Sister Anthony.

It was, however, the album that expanded my musical perspective from the vastly popular music I had been listening to and started to focus my attention on something closer to home and smaller, more personal and something uniquely mine. Something I could follow and see in clubs. I had the opportunity to meet and get to know the musicians and it was a band I could try to convert my friends to. I have developed a lifelong affection for live music, local music, indie music and Canadian music and collectively all of those interests coalesced with Sister Anthony. Everything I love about live music and being proud of Canadian music in particular can be credited to this album.

I have loved many other great Canadian bands and music prior, and since, but The Bourbons were my musical lifeblood for five years. They were and to this day still stand as my all-time favourite live band. They turned me onto soul and funk music and in particular Parliament/Funkadelic with their frenetic live versions of “Loose Booty,” “Funky Dollar Bill” and “Red Hot Mama.” They played awesome covers of “Stand Out” by Love, “Domino” by Van Morrison, Bill Wither’s “Use Me,” “Drive On,” “Deliver Me,” “I’m A Ram” and a slew of others. I will never have as much fun at a concert as I did from 1990-1995 seeing BTC at Lee’s Palace and The Horseshoe Tavern and The Concert Hall and The Phoenix and The Commercial Tavern in Maryhill, Ontario and in London and Guelph and Kingston and Kitchener and pretty much anywhere they played.

They were a melting pot of styles and sounds and always had a rotating group of guests join their already seam-busting eight members onstage. They were doing what Broken Social Scene did but 10 years prior. The link between the two bands being Andrew Whiteman who left BTC in 1993 and ended up becoming one of the key members of BSS in 1999. I probably saw the Bourbons 100 times including that first show in 1985 and their last on July 26 2008 at their Hillside Festival one off reunion show. I doubt I’ll ever see them live again but till my dying day I will never give up hope. So, to Chris Brown, Kate Fenner, Dave Wall, Andrew Whiteman, Gregor Beresford, Chris Miller, Gene Hardy and Jason Mercer, thanks for all you did in BTC and thanks for Sister Anthony – my life and love of music would not have been the same without it. And that is a uniquely singular thing to realize and appreciate. That’s why I chose this album.

One other note about the artwork of the Sister Anthony cassette – the two images included, one of a truck and the other of the band members standing at the side of the road were taken following a near death situation the band experienced after spinning out in their van while driving through the Rocky Mountains on one of their first tours across Canada. As far as the images on the cover, I have no idea what they mean but I’ve always loved it. I’m pretty sure Kate was probably responsible for it as she did a lot of their artwork at the time including their fan newsletter known as Object Ankh. Back in the days when paper newsletters were a real thing.

You can check out more info on the band and download all of their albums here.

Darrin Cappe is a Toronto based music fan and archivist for several bands. He has been lead singer and rhythm guitar player on and off since 1987 in the progressive rock band Tempus Fugit who have released two CDs and one cassette to date. Darrin works in Clinical Research Management to supplement making no money in the music industry.

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