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Martha and the Muffins


Martha and the Muffins - This is the Ice Age

This is the Ice Age
Dindisc - 1981


Michael Panontin
Martha and the Muffins were formed around Toronto's Ontario College of Art and the fledgling, though fertile, nearby Queen West neighbourhood in what would become the proverbial punk cliche of the late seventies. Bored art students Marc Gane and David Millar, along with Martha Johnson and Carl Finkle, toyed with instruments they could barely play, and in a scramble to find a name for their first gig at the annual OCA Halloween party, settled on the Muffins (to counter the violent monikers of most punk groups at the time), adding Martha to it almost as an afterthought. Marc's brother Tim and OCA student Andy Haas rounded out the line-up, while the band proceeded to hone their chops throughout 1978 at bars like the Beverly on Queen Street.

Shafts of limelight began to peek through in June of that year when a demo tape sent to Interview magazine scribe Glen O'Brien would land them a slot at the venerable Hurrah in New York. By March 1979 the band had inked an offer with Virgin subsidiary Dindisc, with their second seven-incher, the buoyant ode to white-collar angst, 'Echo Beach', garnering international attention the following year. Nineteen eighty-one found the band shorn to a four-piece after struggling with major label meddling and a sophomore slump with Trance and Dance. As luck would have it, their new bassist Jocelyn Lanois had a prodigious sibling, the budding producer Daniel, who was fleshing out his own career down the QEW highway in Hamilton. The band pressed Virgin to use the unknown Lanois, with the label finally acquiescing, giving them free reign creatively, though with a substantial budget cut. The resultant wax, the shimmering This is the Ice Age, would prove to be their high-water mark.

At once lush and minimal, This is the Ice Age tackles the banalities and emptiness of the 1980s, at a time when Reagan-era capitalism was just starting to rev up - witness the cover photo that coolly captures the two Torontos, one of towering erections of glass and steel and the other of creaky late Victorian humility. The opener 'Swimming', with its tense, angular guitar and weighty percussion, dovetails into the infectious single 'Women Around the World at Work', which sort of picks up where 'Echo Beach' left off. The quirky antics on 'You Sold the Cottage' poke fun at the futile pursuits of the middle classes up in cottage country north of Toronto - though allusions to horseflies and bloodsuckers will no doubt be lost on those unfamiliar with the annoying pestilence up in the wilds of Canada. Still, Lanois' production is flawless throughout, beefing up pop tracks like 'Women..' with almost strident guitar, while leaving the quieter ones, like the vaguely Eno-esque textures on 'Boy Without Filters', clean and spacious.

After a successful 1983 tour that saw the band play to 10,000 fans at Toronto's Ontario Place, Gane and Johnson would pare down Martha and the Muffins to go it alone as the abridged M + M, scoring huge with the dancefloor-friendly 'Black Stations / White Stations'. Posterity, though, would ultimately forget that track, reserving a place instead for the timeless 'Echo Beach' and the chilly new wave of This is the Ice Age.

         


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