SpoonRiver and Canteen Knockout reviews

In today’s (May 7, 2010) Roots Music column in the Red Deer Advocate, I feature recent releases from two Canadian alt-country bands, Canteen Knockout and SpoonRiver. Both are impressive and have worked their way into consideration for my Polaris Music Prize ballot, which is coming up pretty soon. 

SpoonRiver Kingdom of the Burned Northern Electric

Liberally sprinkling reviews with ancient influences and musical touchstones such as Neil Young and The Byrds is standard music writer shorthand for ‘I don’t know how to describe this band/group/singer without resorting to cliché.” It has to be disconcerting for young groups to have their modern interpretation of classic sounds compared to albums released 40 years ago.

SpoonRiver, a British Columbia-based collective that rose from the disillusion of Montreal’s Royal Mountain Band, certainly base their music in the traditions of country-rock. However, like Old Reliable, The Deadstring Brothers, and Old Crow Medicine Show, Travis Triance and his SpoonRiver comrades find ways to deepen and freshen their music so that the past is more whispered echo than blatant imitation. Yes, one hears Richard Manuel in “Buried in the Sun” but the song owes as much- in structure and sound- to Counting Crows and The Wooden Sky as it does The Band.

Hammond organ, piano, harmonica, guitar, bass, and drums combine with emotive vocals that are saturated with plaintive longing lightened by harmony. The singing evokes the past without sounding stale or dated. The intensity of the lyrics is sometimes deliberately masked, but repeated listening allows the textured landscape of language and melody to reveal itself.

Kingdom of the Burned, ideal for spring evening drives.

Canteen Knockout Broken Down Town Weewerk

The term ‘alt-country’- once descriptive and meaningful- has become a watered-down label that has lost all usefulness. Canteen Knockout is alt-country circa 1999, replete with pedal steel, sweet female harmony, restrained electric guitar, and a bluesy-country Stones’ vibe.

This Toronto band is fronted by André Skinner, the owner of a relaxed delivery that favourably borders on languid; those familiar with The Swiftys may find Skinner’s vocal approach similar to Shawn Jonasson’s.

The dozen songs are ideally crafted, with ample space between the notes and excellent separation between instruments. One notices the absence of instrumental clutter, allowing each spark and nuance time to find its way into the listening experience.

A cover of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” will garner notice, but Skinner’s original material is the attraction. From rockin’, Corb Lundish rave-ups like “My Head’s on Fire” to self-deprecating laments (“Whiskey Drains the Pain”) and maudlin country tribulations (“Louisiana”), Skinner communicates tales, emotions, and a sense of place through lyrics and music as efficiently as others do with prose.

Albums like Broken Down Town make me glad I have the opportunity to champion Canadian roots music.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- I hope you found something of interest and please support the artists. Donald

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