Blue Rodeo Play “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”

Listen to this track by Canadian institution and alt-country pioneers Blue Rodeo. It’s “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”, the closing section made up of two connected songs as taken from their 1993 record Five Days In July.

Blue Rodeo are celebrated on a grand scale here in Canada, having initially built their reputation on Toronto’s Queen Street scene from their first gig in 1985 at the famous Rivoli. They became a stalwart live act from there, reaching stratospheric heights by the end of the decade and into the nineties. By the time they recorded Five Days In July, they were widely regarded as one of the biggest acts in the country, having long since distinguished themselves via the work premier-level songwriters and band principals Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.

With that history in place, the band were still interested in progressing their sound beyond their influences as they’d always sought to do, those influences being that Cosmic American sound popularized by The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Harvest-era Neil Young. To do so, they did what another Band once had done; they retreated to the countryside for a while. Read more

The Long Ryders Play “Looking For Lewis And Clark”

the-long-ryders-state-of-our-unionListen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.

In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.

There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.

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Jim White Sings “Static On The Radio” Feat. Aimee Mann

Drill_a_Hole_in_That_Substrate_and_Tell_Me_What_You_SeeListen to this track by musical pilgrim and singer-songwriter Jim White, along with his guest in fellow pop scribe Aimee Mann. It’s “Static On The Radio”, a cut as taken from White’s 2004 record, Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See.

Before he became a professional songwriter, Jim White was known by his birth name: Michael Davis Pratt. He had had a storied career in non-musical fields such as film school student, pro-surfer, preacher (he’d been in the Pentecostal church as a teen), and cabbie. He learned his instrument and his craft while laid up with a broken leg, watching game shows, and learning chord shapes. All the while, his gift for narrative was waiting to blossom, which eventually it certainly did in his songs, and in his prose fiction, too.

I think that mixture of writing disciplines on White’s part is what primarily feeds this song, which a series of vignettes that are decidedly nocturnal in nature and in execution. It’s almost a literal dark night of the soul kind of song. From where does it spring, and what does it say about White’s own experience, and maybe ours, too? Read more

The Handsome Family Play “So Much Wine”

Artist_THE_HANDSOME_FAMILY_album_IN_THE_AIRListen to this track by gothic Americana proponents The Handsome Family. It’s “So Much Wine”, a cut as taken off of their 2000 record, In The Air.  On this record, the band that is made up of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks along with collaborators, continue their artistic path that evokes the darker corners of old-time and country music which had helped to lend perspective in the nineties, when glossy country-pop ruled the airwaves.

Country music and the folk musics out of which it came always had this darker edge to it, concerning itself with loss and loneliness, and not in a way that was so easily lampooned by outsiders and non-fans of the genre over the decades. Like the blues, country music was always about being at ground level, and very often a lot lower than that spiritually speaking. It dealt in being pulled in two directions; up into the light of divinely inspired well-being, and down into the depths of despair and hell.

That’s where The Handsome Family staked their territory when they began in the early nineties, and very much continue to do so on this tune. Read more

Ryan Adams Sings “New York, New York”

Ryan Adams New York New YorkListen to this track by former Whiskytown principle turned 21st century roots-rock poster boy Ryan Adams. It’s “New York, New York”, a stormingly anthemic single as taken from his smash 2001 record Gold his second album as a solo artist.

Apart from the ambitious scope of the record that touches on a number of classic rock textures that reference Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, and late ’60s Rolling Stones, it had time on its side, too. Released only a couple of weeks after New York made the news in a shocking and tragic manner during the events of September 11, 2001 , this song became a love song to a city during a very troubled and heartbreaking time.

The madness of these times was palpable, and this was an anathema, like a balm during a time that felt like the end of one era, and the beginning of a much darker one. The song won him a Grammy for best male rock vocal, and raised his profile among peers, critics, and record buyers. Yet, that darkness followed this song, impossible to separate from how celebratory it sounds due to that timing which could not be forseen. Amazingly, the video for this song was shot four days before the skyline of the city to which the song became a tribute would change forever.

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First Aid Kit Play “Silver Lining”

First Aid Kit Stay GoldListen to this track by Scandinavian country-folk-indie duo and close-harmony sirens First Aid Kit. It’s “Silver Lining”, a lead single as taken from this year’s album Stay Gold, their third.

Drawing from a love of acts ranging from Bright Eyes to the Carter Family, First Aid Kit is made up of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, both of Enskede, a borough of Stockholm. Their sound draws from traditions of early country music that’s pretty far removed from what listeners might expect from a couple of Swedes in their early twenties, having started performing together and even writing songs by the time they were in their early teens. And that’s another unexpected dimension to their music; they work within a tradition that values experience that comes with age, and manage to pull it off despite their tender years.

Basically, everything about this band is unexpected, which besides  their obvious natural talent may be why they’ve been able to get to work with luminaries like Patti Smith, Fleet Foxes, and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. So what does this song illustrate  in keeping with the traditions in which they’re hooking into, and the strengths of the band in general? Read more

Townes Van Zandt Sings “Tower Song”

Listen to this track by outlaw country herald and transcendentally gifted, underexposed Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. It’s “Tower Song”, first featured on his 1971 album Delta Momma Blues, with this particular version being re-positioned as an aged gem on the 1999 album Far Cry From Dead.

Townes Van Zandt
Source: Townes Van Zandt Central (

On this song, it’s the starkness on display that outlines the sheer magnitude of Van Zandt’s command of melody, lyrics, and the raw human experience that burns right through it all. It’s no wonder that his friend and musical disciple Steve Earle  would famously proclaim Townes Van Zandt as the “best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Perhaps Bob, after clearing up Earle’s bootprints, would agree, particularly in the light of this song, which is certainly one of my favourites.

This latter-day version was recorded under inauspicious circumstances, later to be added to a project that would prove to be something of a tribute to a career that had been troubled, and financially unfruitful for the artist at the center of it. This lack of career traction is contrasted with his artistic influence that made lasting waves in the careers of others, including Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, both having recorded Van Zandt’s material.

Far Cry From Dead is effectively a compilation album of re-recorded work. It showcases a choice selection of songs over a twenty-five year career, after the artist had passed. And there is something in this new version of the  song that strikes a stronger chord, showing new dimension to an already first-tier talent that went largely uncelebrated while the man himself was still with us.

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Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Sing “Home”

upfrombelowListen to this song by Californian multi-membered collective Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. It’s their song from 2009’s Up From Below album, “Home”, sort of a Johnny Cash/June Carter duet, as interpreted through an orchestral pop lens, and packed full of charm.

The band was conceived by principal songwriter Alex Ebert, who in addition to having been in power pop band Ima Robot, also imagined the figure of Edward Sharpe when he embarked on a solo career. The idea for the character was centered around Sharpe as a being sent to earth to save humanity, but caught blindside by love on the way.

The character was a central figure in a novel Ebert was working on, and eventually spilled over into this new musical project.  So, shades of Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the aforementioned Johnny Cash, then. Perhaps a dash of Polyphonic Spree can be thrown in there, too, just because the band includes eleven members, and sometimes more with supplementary players.

One such member is guitarist and vocalist Jade Castrinos, the other half of the duet here, which gives the song a vintage feel of a country song that features the compelling push-pull of two voices, including some  spoken-word dialogue that really creates an immediate chemistry.

Also, this song is just plain sweet, a perfect breath of fresh air with a tone of innocence that really makes it stand out. It’s  a straight up, old-fashioned love song in an era when it seems to be uncool to tell someone how much you love them in a pop song without adding a layer of something in between – loving someone “like a love song”, for instance.

The song itself has made an impact internationally, and on the Billboard alternative charts.  The band has performed it, and other songs off of the debut at festivals all over the world. It’s been heard on TV shows from Gossip Girl, to Ugly Betty, to Community.

The follow up to Up From Below is expected this year.

For more information about Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, and listen to more of their music, check out the Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Facebook page.


Whiskeytown Performs ‘Mirror Mirror’

Listen to this song by former alt-country turned eclectic pop band Whiskeytown.  It’s ‘Mirror Mirror’, a shimmering anthem from an album that almost never was – Pneumonia, the third album bearing the band’s name and released in 2001, but recorded in 1999.

The recording of the album was under the circumstances of the end of the group, and the end of the band’s label.  Songwriter and lead singer Ryan Adams was  virtually the sole the motivating force.   He would of course make his way as a solo artist by 2000, and a prolific one at that.

But, as for this album – it was shelved for over a year, its fate uncertain while two major labels merged.  Yet, fans caught wind of the rumours of its existence, and it gained a reputation as something as a great lost album, something like a lower profile version of the Beach Boys SMiLE album, which was held in legendary esteem among pop fans in the 60s and beyond – lead Beach Boy and songwriter Brian Wilson’s ‘teenage symphony to God’.

Adams’ ambition wasn’t as lofty as Brian Wilson’s perhaps.  Yet, it’s clear that Adams was coming into his own as a recording artist even if the record itself didn’t make as much headway as another album also released in 2001 – Ryan Adams’ Gold, his second album as a solo artist, and one that would make him a star.

And speaking of Brian Wilson, this tune ‘Mirror Mirror’ has something of Wilson’s influence on it, a chirpy, poppy gem of a song that contrasts the sentiments of loss in its lyrics to the sunshiny joy in the melody and arrangement.  This song, and the album off of which it comes showed Adams to be a remarkable talent, and well beyond the confines of the alt-country genre in which Whiskeytown had established itself. Perhaps tellingly, Whiskeytown were no more when this record reached fans.


Lucinda Williams Sings ‘Mama You Sweet’

west_lucinda_williams_albumListen to this song by alt-country and singer-songwriterly roots-rock maven Lucinda Williams with her 2007 track ‘Mama You Sweet’ as taken from her album West.

I love the way this song builds and builds, starting off pretty unassuming, and yet becoming something of a deluge of imagery.  There is a sense of the overwhelming in the lyrics, of being overcome by feelings which are not easily articulated.  And yet because Williams builds momentum, and with an astounding sense of how to pace the song, we as listeners are bound to every word.

This is not even to mention how beautifully lived-in Williams’ voice is, a study in how to explore and utilize the boundaries of an instrument.  This is so much more interesting, so much more connected to humanity than an American Idol-approved idea of what a ‘good voice’ is.  This is an old horse to flog, maybe.  But, it’s still an important point to make.

For me, the best word to describe this tune is elemental.  There are images of the ocean, which stands out the most for me as a means of capturing something that is both beautiful and frighteningly all-encompassing all at the same time.  And if that’s not a great way to describe love, I don’t know what is.

For more information about Lucinda Williams, you’d best catch her at the official Lucinda Williams website.