Birthday Boy

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Hamilton, Ontario's Tom Wilson had something to prove. For years, he was one of the most focused, dedicated performers on the Canadian music scene, through his time with Florida Razors and the early indie years of Junkhouse. Once major-label Sony rang the bell, debut album Strays responded ragingly, with all the bluster and boldness of a playground bully. Wilson has much less to prove on follow-up Birthday Boy, which allows for more personal exposure, vulnerability, and a well-rounded instrumental palette to color his working-class sensibilities. Not that he forsakes the howling vocals, bleak-street lyrics, or grimy, grinding rhythms that speak just as convincingly of no-hope industrial town existence. On lead track "Chunk (Port Dover)," a bass and drums punch like a huge, industrial stamping machine while guitars buzz like shards of metal grinding together in some interminable production-line dance. "Burn for You" smolders with the heat of a hot, wavy summer turning pavement into chewing gum; the sound of burnt-out individuals ready to implode incandescently. "Caves"' thick atmosphere explores the inner recesses that we retreat to in times of trauma, sometimes losing our way -- a song dedicated to legendary 13th Floor Elevators casualty Roky Erickson. The title track, with its Iggy/Stooges-go-ballistic-in-Hell spirit, evokes no ordinary birthday party, while "Be Someone" pulses to its protagonist's fanatical determination to succeed at all personal costs. As fine as these are, none holds a candle to the sonorous, awesomely aching "Burned Out Car," a funereal duet with Sarah McLachlan, co-penned with Murray McLauchlan, where open-minded listeners risk palpably sharing the pain of the homeless, broken spirits found walking our cities. Album-closer "Drink" is almost as bleakly effective, lessened only by its too obvious tip-of-the-cap to the Nick Cave canon.