Monday, December 7, 2009

Alt Country, Schmalt Country and Killbeat Music

In a book by John Connolly I was reading recently I found this little tidbit. One character asks what kind of music is playing over the car stereo, and the car owner answers, "Alternative country."
"That's when your truck starts, your wife comes back and your dog gets resurrected," he snickered.
"Willie Nelson heard you talking like that, he'd whip your ass."

I can't actually remember which artist was playing - Lambchop? Iron & Wine? At any rate, soon after that, I had a request for some "alt country" recommendations. I'm not really sure what alt country is or isn't. I used to think it was the holy trinity of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Wilco. But both Wilco and Son Volt have veered off into some music that has nothing to do with country and sometimes has little to do with rock. And it can't be just the marriage of country and rock, either, because the Eagles don't fit into it either, at least from my perspective. What about those who came before, Jason & the Scorchers, Jr. Gone Wild, Long Ryders,or Rank and File? Do they retroactively get shoved under alt. country? What about Steve Earle? Dwight Yoakam? Gram Parsons? (An aside: I just looked up Alt country on wikipedia and there's a big golden exclamation mark beside a warning that the article contains weasel words - that sounds hilarious, I am now going to make sure my posts contain weasel words, okay?)Parsons always said he was making cosmic American music, didn't he?

When I was a kid, I couldn't get into country, but Johnny Cash seemed to have something. But I remember when The Jayhawks came out with Hollywood Town Hall, a guy I worked with who loved a lot of generic rock music fell for it big-time. So did I. I think it might have been around that time I first heard the term "alternative country". Is that what I was listening to when I watched Jr. Gone Wild at the Spectrum, rolling out jangly rock with country overtones? Is that the thing I tried to imitate when my basement band wrecked Jason and the Scorchers' brilliant Hank Williams-goes-punk paean White Lies? When Steve Earle covered Son Volt's Windfall at the Walker Theatre, was the old alt-country winking to the new alt-country?

I wasn't sure then, and I'm even less sure now. Does Neil Young fit into this category? Calexico? Fleet Foxes? Blitzen Trapper? Where do folk or other rootsy sub-genres fit in this slippery puzzle? I don't know. Here's some songs I like, call 'em what you want. And oh yeah, you know what's cool? They're all Canadian artists. Not only that, but they're all promoted/pushed/publicised by the sweet-as-honey Killbeat Music, where you can swiftly download all of these tracks (as well as many others) gratis. Not just roots, country or alt-country stuff either, check out Orchid Highway, Cory Woodward, Two Hours Traffic, The Parties, The Paperbacks, The Parkas, Parlour Steps, Paper Moon...hey, that's a lot of "P" bands.

Winnipeg's own The Western States have put out two albums of fine music, and the last one, Bye and Bye, upped the ante with a live-to-tape all-analog organic vibe. Every one of their songs gets room to breathe, even though there's layers to delve into - a trumpet here, some fine honky-tonk piano there, and wistful vocals aplenty. My favourite is still The Road is Dark as the Night, starting with guitar and voice and building up to a mini-epic, with tasteful guitar supplied by master Chris Carmichael. Here's a melancholy bit of sonic beauty.

The Western States - Time To Lose (download mp3 here)

Sudbury-based Ox combine a laid-back, spare sensibility with a rising, rousing chorus of harmony and joy. Even when the words are not joyful.

Ox - Burnout (download mp3 here)

Vancouver's Dan Mangan has won the listener-awarded XM Verge Artist of the Year award, which netted him a $25,000 prize. He's garnering lots of college radio play, as well as touring almost anywhere - for example, he just played in Dubai, after which he's hitting a truckload of European dates. Check out At Constant Speed for a full review.

Dan Mangan - Road Regrets (download mp3 here)

Vancouverite Dustin Bentall weaves rustic tales of beauty and pain, hitting a much more twangy (and indie) road than dad Barney did in the early '90s.

Dustin Bentall - Railroad (download mp3 here)

Ridley Bent is also from B.C., but he hoes a more straightforward country row. However, he also drops Husker Du, Nine Pound Hammer (cow-punk!?!), and yep, you guessed it, Nine Inch Nails into his lyrics. Does that qualify him for alt country membership? Well, the song was actually co-written with Dustin Bentall, and it won Country Song Of The Year at the Independent Music Awards of North America. He's currently opening for Corb Lund, who is pretty darn country but comes out of a strong punk/indie background.

Ridley Bent - Nine Inch Nails (download mp3 here)

Deep Dark Woods hail from Saskatoon, and the band's prairie harmonies and laid-back shuffles may have helped them land a tune on CBC Radio 2's Great Canadian Song Quest. The band's developed a sound that seems timeless, sometimes giving off faint echoes of Neil Young in his prime, and sometimes reflecting a precious, fragile beauty like that of the much-hyped Fleet Foxes.

Deep Dark Woods - All the Money I Had is Gone (download mp3 here)

Twilight Hotel is an Austin-by-way-of-Winnipeg duo that has been Juno-nominated. Their blend of folk-blues-roots sometimes gives hints of menace a la PJ Harvey, but choruses often feature rich, layered vocals and stronger-than-death lyrics. Listen for the performers on this song at the end of the tune as they offnhandedly talk about how much fun it was to record...

Twilight Hotel - Viva la Vinyl (download mp3 here)

Edmontonian Corb Lund describes his music as "scruffy country", among other things, so you shouldn't be surprised to see him here. He's been the Canadian Country Music Association's Roots Artist of the Year and picked up one Juno so far for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year. I was in a junior high school recently and a kid was listening to Lund's The Truck Got Stuck, so this ain't just old man country. At times, Lund sounds like a modern Stompin' Tom Connors or a twangier Blue Rodeo, and he's going to have a long career like those fellas (he already had a pretty successful turn in indie-rock band The Smalls, so he's on his way).

Corb Lund - Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier (download mp3 here)

Winnipegger Romi Mayes took home the 2009 Western Canadian Music Award trophy for Songwriter and Roots Album of the Year. Her sweet country blues is always richly produced by Gurf Morlix, and she plays non-stop - she's currently touring in Europe with Danny Michel and has shows booked for next September already. A lot of people refer to her serious work ethic, and Mayes is a tireless promoter - I know, I get her e-mails all the time.

Romi Mayes - Achin' In Yer Bones (download mp3 here)

Lee Harvey Osmond is "Tom Wilson, some of the Cowboy Junkies, a few Skydiggers, Ray Farrugia from Junkhouse, Brent Titcomb and a lot of groove", according to their myspace page. Tom Wilson was in Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. So tis no surprise that LHO occasioanlly sounds a tad like those outfits, but there's a lot of atmospherics and subtlety here. I've seen the band described as acid folk, and we do get elements of beatnik jazz here...but I think there's some gentle alt-country nods here, especially when Margo Timmins shows up.

Lee Harvey Osmond - The Love of One (download mp3 here)

Kim Barlow is from the Yukon as far as I can tell, and I'm sure many listeners are going to say this tune is simply folk, and maybe it is. I just like it.

Kim Barlow - Great White Nothing (download mp3 here)

Nathan Lawr has played in Royal City and on albums by Cuff the Duke, Jim Guthrie, Gentlement Reg, and The Hylozoists, and many more. I think this tune is a warm blend of pop sensibilities and organic-sounding hopefulness, like The Band were just starting out now and employed lyrics about a freshwater shark.

Nathan Lawr & the Minotaurs - Righteous Heart (download mp3 here)

T. Nile hails from Vancouver, and she's got her own take on folk/roots, sounding like Gillian Welch one moment, Norah Jones the next, and Lisa Loeb later. Nile has already been named Best New/Emerging Folk Artist at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Check out her live version of The Postal Service's Such Great Heights on her myspace page, her spare rendition frames the melancholy melody perfectly.

T. Nile - Cabin Song (download mp3 here)

Lastly, sometime Winnipegger Matt Epp's bio calls him "folk-soul", but tunes like Cover Me nod more to Ryan Adams than any folkie. They Won't Find the Bodies' synth sounds take it somewhere else, as do the softly sung perilous lyrics - and the video, for that matter.

MATT EPP music video for THEY WON'T FIND THE BODIES from Matt Epp on Vimeo.

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