Vancouver’s 54-40 got their name from US history. “Fifty-four forty or fight” was the 1844 presidential campaign slogan of James K. Polk, who promised to go to war with the British over the Oregon territory, which extended north of Vancouver west of the Rockies. Polk wanted the northern US border in the region moved north to the latitude of 54 degrees and 40 minutes, which was at the time the southern border of Russia’s Alaskan territory. It was all a very long time ago, and no war was ever fought over the issue. The edgy Selection, though not quite as dated-sounding as all that, is the group’s strongest work: low budget production, warm squiggly guitar lines and funk undercurrents. There’s a folky sense of shimmer, coupling acoustic and electric instruments and a twitchy feel that bounces and bobs and nearly yodels (on “Jamming With Lawrence”). The moody vocals, crisply muted drumming and scratchy guitar bubbles make “Yanks” nearly jump off the disc with nervous energy, while the funk-infused “He’s Got” couples post-Joy Division vocals with horns and dark guitars.
By Set the Fire, 54-40’s formerly personality-filled drumming had evolved into the same rhythm box-inspired dance beat that every MTV-wannabe band of the time used. The horns trade their anxious edge for a homogenized white soul background sound; though the group still uses guitar, the feeling behind their music is synthetic. No quirks. No edges. No fire.
The third release’s best songs show traces of how the band evolved from the early ’80s gloom movement and what they might have become. The lonely and majestic “Me Island” seethes with echo and attempts to build into the kind of tense energy ball achieved on Selection. The cacophony section of “Holy Cow” screams with vitality, but the rest of the song is mired in dreary darkness. The first half of 54-40 is so bland that it barely qualifies as rock music.
Brightly engineered with full-scale production, Show Me has sparklingly loud and clear high notes and thick sound. But there’s precious little excitement underneath the commercial surface. All it needs is a blue stripe across the cover and it could be sold with the other plain-wrap generic items in the supermarket. A real waste. (The CD and tape add two songs.)
With the band’s solid heartland personality and a couple of countryish pop tunes as chasers, the loudly textured commercial guitar-rock tunes on Fight for Love rise above the mainstream…a little. Uplifting melodies and harmonies, slightly unusual songs and production that keeps slipping away from the obvious sound of such records is enough to keep Fight for Love moderately stimulating but far from satisfying.