It’s lucky Bob Wiseman never got to be a contestant on What’s My Line. When Arlene Dahl and Bennett Cerf pulled off their masks and looked eagerly for the correct answer to their futile supposings, the nondescript Canadian who stood before them might be hard-pressed to explain what exactly it is that he does, since it changes so radically depending on what he’s doing. Until 1992’s Lost Together, when the group’s dedication to country-rock became definite and his outside interests grew too demanding, he contributed barrelhouse piano, florid organ and rustic accordion to Blue Rodeo. He’s co-written, produced and played on records for a wide variety of artists, from Ron Sexsmith and Eugene Chadbourne to Barenaked Ladies, Jane Siberry and Edie Brickell; he’s also created scores for Canadian television. According to record company bumpf, he’s also a monologist, painter, photographer and jazz pianist. Far from seeming like a daunting over-achiever, this odd duck is a truly fascinating and unpredictable figure.
In 1989, Wiseman branched out of Blue Rodeo with In Her Dream, an album whose fictional conceit was that its lyrics came from letters written to Wiseman by “poet, traveller, activist and philosopher” Wrench Tuttle. (“Currently he lives in Atlanta where he studies movement classes.”) In Her Dream is an offbeat mixture of heavy-duty political protest (“Just Tourists” and “No Commotion” both concern the fatal French bombing of a Greenpeace ship; “Bhopal (Driftnet Plan)” is an indictment of Union Carbide’s greed as the cause of the disastrous poison leak in India) and rollicking, likable folk-to-rock, played mostly on acoustic guitar and piano, with phone messages, a news broadcast and other offbeat ingredients keeping the hops hopping. In a whimsical fantasy, Wiseman musters a dose of backward electric psychedelia for “Airplane on the Highway,” which complains about the hassle of driving with wings: “They say there once were airplanes that in the sky flew.” Wiseman sings in a casual but engaging voice that squawks a bit like Gordon Gano’s but reeks of personality; among the guests are Mary Margaret O’Hara (vocals), Ben Mink (violin) and future Ani DiFranco drummer Andy Stochansky (voice).
Wiseman’s next two solo albums, which find him turning down the giddiness in favor of devastating sardonicism and stand-your-ground current-events anger, weren’t released in America, but all three are conveniently sampled on the cleverly titled and remarkably stirring In by Of. Although the topicals from In Her Dream were left behind, the six songs that represent it are good choices, and the nine selections from Presented by Lake Michigan Soda and City of Wood provide enough searing commentary to make up the difference. “How Round the Earth” uses the telling of an anti-Semitic beating Wiseman evidently suffered as a twelve-year-old as the context for a wry refutation of impersonal politics. “Ice Cube’s got a new record out/I read about his press conference/He talked about history/About the Jewish conspiracy/And it occurred to me to say/Ice Cube, I live at 848 Oak Street/You should come over and have tea/I’ll show you my bank account/I’ll show you the car I drive/And then maybe you’ll decide/The earth isn’t flat.” Even more ardent about the carriage of injustice, “Have a Nice Day” is an intricate and detailed attack on an attorney who represents reality-denying reactionaries; the harshly worded “City of Wood” damns the blame-the-victim defense and the actual aggressor in a sex attack, using crudely thumped bass keys of a piano for creepy accompaniment. Able to make righteous rage and righteous rock go head to head as well as hand in hand, Wiseman sets up a compelling dichotomy that makes hard ideas very hard not to swallow.
Wiseman co-wrote, produced and plays on Shame-Based Man, the inexplicable, unclassifiable and barely defensible 1995 album by Bruce McCulloch (no, not him, the other one) from Kids in the Hall. Beyond an amusing vintage simulation of the Doors (“Doors”), Wiseman’s part in abetting the dryly absurdist comic’s nearly futile attempt to set his supposed-to-be-funny-and-touching nonsense to music — with all the bad words and rock references not found on the TV show — is well-crafted and inconspicuous, which is easily the best thing that can be said about the record.