Fluke still rocks long after it’s been forgotten.
In the era of plaid, grunge and rock ‘n’ roll’s unrelenting cynicism, there was an unusually bright focus on Canadian alternative rock bands. On the East Coast, Halifax, Nova Scotia had been referred to on more than a few occasions as “Canada’s Seattle”. It had an unusually large number of successful alt-rock acts despite being a small city maritime city. Sloan, Thrush Hermit and the Inbreds were all becoming as mainstream as a Canadian band could by spending a lot of time on international radio—particularly in the U.S. market, where it mattered most. Travel a little further west and you run into Toronto, a city with a reputation for self-identifying as the centre of the Canadian universe. Though it had plenty of its own success stories, they were far less notable if only because they were expected of such a metropolis. Then came an unusual breakout EP from a little-known outfit called Rusty. It fit in nicely with that ‘90s signature formula of slow rock jam unleashing beastly, wall of noise choruses. Ken MacNeil had a wonderful rasp that could give any Seattle band a run for their money. Dig a little deeper and it would surprise nobody to find out that the band was actually made up of former members of One Free Fall, a group of guys from Wolfville, Nova Scotia — not far from Halifax. Scott McCullough had cut his teeth with the Doughboys for their first album Whatever but left the band in 1987 before they would see their own rise on the charts with later records. Regardless of his brief time with the band, the symbolic association brought an instant credibility to Rusty at least for those who were longtime fans of the Doughboys unique mixed bag of melody, rock and punk influence.
With the success of the self-titled EP, and the aim to strike while the iron was hot, they signed a distribution deal with BMG in Canada and a deal with Atlantic Records TAG imprint to bring their indie Handsome Boy records to the US and the rest of the world. Rusty’s first full length Fluke (which also featured “Wake Me”) was released in 1995 and among other singles, took “Wake Me” even further.
The record opens on “Groovy Dead”, an epic, plodding grunge track with short verses, cracking wide almost immediately and soaring into a melodic hook under layers of guitar squelch. Listening to it now it’s immediately recognizable as ‘90s alt-rock but yet stands the test of time. The production has a spotless quality uncommon among indie bands of that era, particularly on a first record. Fans of more recent acts like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene need look no further to find influences. Whether they’d admit it or not, the modern flavour of those bands is born out of this sound albeit smothered in modern pop sauce. Rusty certainly appealed to something a little more sophisticated than your average Nirvana or Mudhoney knock-off. While West Coast grunge bands often seemed to eschew melody as superfluous, bands like Rusty and Doughboys seemed to find their way back to it involuntarily.
“Punk” is a fast, hardcore banger that’s true to its namesake. It’s completely out of place next to “Wake Me” and yet somehow fits in with the Canadian aesthetic of the time. That sound had a lot of bands trying to be the next Smashing Pumpkins (see: Our Lady Peace) but Rusty was working another angle. Every album of this ilk had a slow jam or two, a couple of fast tracks and some straight-ahead rock. Though nothing here would be described as “metal” it was hard and heavy enough in places that no metalhead would be out of place banging their head and stage-diving to “K.D. Lang”. “California” goes over like a country song for at least a few verses. It’s worth noting that nobody in eastern Canada sounds like they’re from Texas, so the authenticity of MacNeil’s Southwestern drawl on that track is dubious.
The real groundbreaking single was “Misogyny.” Though not as chart successful as “Wake Me”, it remains the track with the biggest memorable footprint among fans. It sounds incredibly ahead of its time and would carry the band through a tour with Atlantic label-mates, Collective Soul across the U.S. If you put it on the radio today it would seem modern and timely both lyrically and musically. It tells the story of a woman disrespected, victimized and repeatedly giving her abuser another chance. In the shadow of 2017’s American presidential inauguration when thousands of women marched for their rights, it’s sad to say that a track like this remains relevant — perhaps even more so.
Unfortunately sales were modest and as little as they really count as indicators for the quality of a record, they show that Rusty had the ears of a large portion of the Canadian public (50,000 among a small population) and a disappointing 25,000 in the U.S. And yet the album remains in 2017 one worth revisiting if only to appreciate the sound of Canadian alternative rock in the ‘90s— all charged and messy melody. It influenced the sound of bands we love internationally today even though many of those now on the ancestral line of alternative music seem more steeped in whimsy, pop and fever dream. Perhaps more to the point, Fluke still rocks long after it’s been forgotten. In a time when multiple nations are seeing a deliberate and calculated upset of social progress, you can bet that rock ‘n’ roll is going to start getting a little more upset too.