Life ain’t fair, but the thorns of injustice hit Montreal’s The Nils particularly hard. Blessed with an impeccable sense of melody and bursting at the seams with post-punk energy, The Nils left behind a small catalog of evidence and an endless amount of unrealized potential.
The Nils’ debut full-length was released in 1987. Part of the funding the band received leading up to their debut came from the guy from Men Without Hats. Even people back then thought it was an odd pairing.
It’s because The Nils sound nothing like Men Without Hats, but they do sound a lot like The Replacements. In some weird moment of synchronicity, a pair of brothers from Canada created noise out of boredom. After a few days of tinkering with a new guitar, Carlos Soria noticed that his brother Alex was getting good with his instrument.
They formed a band with a few more young locals, and before too long, The Nils were getting noticed. And for a bunch of teenagers, they sounded pretty good.
Particularly Alex Soria, who began to write some emotionally vulnerable stuff under the racket that he and his brother were bashing through their amplifiers.
Aside from a few EPs on Canadian labels that made Twin/Tone look like a major, the band waited on the sidelines for their moment.
And when it came, it became their undoing.
When the band was finally extended an offer, they were in desperation mode. They signed the first offer presented to them, and on the surface, it looked promising. Rock Hotel Records started life as a rock subsidiary for Profile Records, who were enjoying tremendous success with rap artists like Run-D.M.C.
The Nils collects a dozen tunes of sloppy, up-tempo punk/pop that displayed signs of “maturity” while avoiding the sound of fatigue that plagued the ‘Mats’ own forays into adulthood (Don’t Tell A Soul).
Instead, the vast majority of the songs on their debut feature galloping rhythms and three-chord brashness. You’ll find no trouble name-checking the bands that followed The Nils tradition, and you’ll be able to find several that made a decent living doing it. But you won’t be able to find a suitable explanation as to why The Nils weren’t able to create similar favor.
The opener “River Of Sadness” builds from an acoustic twelve-string into a rollicking bit of melancholia. Westerberg himself – particularly with his association to the Mississippi – would have enjoyed penning Soria’s plaintive musing “By the river of sadness / My heart unfolds.”
The Nils is filled with emotional depth, hidden under arrangements that most undoubtedly rocked the cigarette smoke off of more than a few dives in its day.
And just at the moment when the band began to play to larger audiences, their upstart label lost the financial backing of their parent company. The Nils suddenly found themselves in a quiet van ride back to Canada, and when they arrived home, they faced myriad legal wrangling just to get back to the same point from which they began.
All of this, of course, also kept The Nils out of print and out of record stores. By the time it was over, we had unceremoniously forgotten about the band, right around the same time a bunch of younger bands had figured out how to present a similar approach directly into the mainstream.
While lesser bands rode to their own 120 minutes of success, The Nils floundered at home – the wind completely out of their sails and their bitterness leading them into addiction. A few years ago after another setback fell on him, Alex decided to take a walk by the railroad tracks and instead of turning back to go home and start over, he walked directly into the path of an oncoming train.
What a shame, mainly because Alex used to conduct one of rock music’s most formidable locomotives himself and The Nils is the best example of that power before everything derailed too soon.
Video: The Nils – “Freedom”