It’s always been difficult to pin The Sadies down. They came tearing out of Canada in the 90’s with a fine mash up of instrumental rock and alt country detouring to collaborate with soul singer Andre Williams (and eventually becoming as well known for further collaborations as their own efforts). Gradually the instrumentals took second place to harmonic vocals and their 2007 album New Seasons is generally regarded as a minor classic and with Northern Passages they’ve assembled another album that at the very least deserves to be considered on a par with New Seasons and in this writer’s consideration is a far more assured affair. While they still offer up an agglomeration of influences The Sadies transcend them as they gather together sixties psychedelic country, proto punk aggro, Paisley Underground and college rock; the parts welded into a sleek well tuned machine.
They open with the trippy psych folk of Riverview Fog channelling the Byrds circa The Notorious Byrds Brothers before barrelling into the Detroit metal ramalama of Another Season Again fuelled by snotty MC5 like arrogance. This dichotomy runs throughout the album with dips into country rock countered by all out freakouts with power chords and feedback well to the fore, at times this occurs within the one song, witness the astounding There Are No Words and the powerful The Elements Song which is a wonderful wall of sound infused with incense, peppermints and incendiary guitars. There are wide open vistas on the frantic acoustic drive that is peppered with Morricone like guitar flashes which is Through Strange Eyes while God Bless The Years is (almost) straightforward country rock with pedal steel almost tongue in cheek here (and recalling again The Byrds on Drug Store Truck Driving Man). The Good Years is a narrative that could have been penned by Paul Simon back in the days and delivered as if Simon and his buddy Art were perhaps on those pep pills so popular back then while As Above, So Below has a sixties like baroque pop groove.
There’s fuzz guitar and feedback. Melody and mayhem. Psych pop and strutting grooves. The curious amalgam of Gene Clark and The Yardbirds that is Questions I’ve Never Asked perhaps the best example of the duality on show here but overall Northern Passages is a thrilling ride and perhaps the best Sadies album so far.
Copenhagen finds Scandinavian artist Benjamin Folke Thomas continuing his journey from folkie (admired as much for his finger picking skills as his songs) to melodic rock band leader. Recorded with the same line up as on Rogue State Of Mind the album is less punchy than its predecessor with Thomas’s attractive baritone well to the fore over a backing that rarely lets loose but is more sonically adventurous. The opening song, Good Enough For Me, is a prime example as the band settle into a mid tempo shuffle with Thomas almost talking through the Dylan like lyrics before his refrain is amplified by muted guitar swirls. As the song progresses the guitars muster some energy before breaking out into a Thin Lizzy type duality without disturbing the neighbours. The following Rhythm And Blues is sparkier with an acoustic guitar thrash and is the first of several songs that address relationships. The band are in fine folk rock form here but the passion emanates from Thomas’s vocals.
There’s a great deal of passion involved here but again it’s down to Thomas’s voice or his lyrics with one song, Hold On particularly scathing as Thomas tears into some rock idols and their predilection for youthful flesh. The soulful intro in Good Friend Again finds Thomas recovering from the night before and disturbed by the neighbours, “fucking through the wall” before he goes on to scourge himself for his failings while the band slowly ramp up the tension. Bad News finds Thomas approximating Leonard Cohen’s apocalyptic pronouncements on his The Future album down to Cohen’s use of keyboards and programmed drums on an enigmatic song that might refer to the global banking crisis that still has us bailing out the banks.
Nestled within these songs are some gems. Finn is a trilogy of tributes to three people in his life that wafts wonderfully with the band finely pulsating and sending out some barbed guitar shards that swell towards the end as a chorus of backing vocals come in and then fade leaving only a beating drum. Copenhagen 30/6 is lighter fare with as its almost bossa nova beat finds Thomas recalling a rock’n’roll romance threatened by poor gigs and too much booze but with a hopeful ending. Struck Gold is about salvation via a muse and again the band gently propel the song along with a funereal beat and slivers of guitar. The song itself is one that had it been written back then might have been selected by Johnny Cash for one of his valedictory albums. The album closes with Thomas revisiting his earlier folk persona with Gimme A Smile recalling the work of Tom Paxton.
The album’s released this Friday and Benjamin Folke Thomas starts a short UK and Europe tour tonight, dates here.
He may not be a household name but it’s a fair bet that most Blabber’n’Smoke readers will have several albums that have benefited from the presence of Will Kimbrough as a player or producer, often both. Included in his extensive CV are Brigitte DeMeyer’s last two albums and the pair have toured together extensively. It makes sense then that the pair have decided to record Mockingbird Soul, a set of songs written by the duo and set firmly in the Southern traditions of country, blues and soul. Their shared playing experience has certainly honed their harmonising with the duet’s singing throughout the album superb and they’ve had the good sense to keep it simple, the majority of the songs featuring Kimbrough’s guitar along with double bass (Chris Donohue) with spare percussion on the odd occasion. The result is an album that will surely delight followers of the likes of Mavis Staples and Ry Cooder along with anyone who is a sucker for well crafted male/female harmonies.
A couple of the songs are relatively straightforward retreads of familiar tropes. The Juke is a country blues number which allows Kimbrough plenty of space for his fine slide playing and excellent harmonica as DeMeyer comes across like an amalgam of Bonnie Raitt and Bobbie Gentry. Running Round is another country blues jaunt that recalls the likes of The Loving Spoonful or Taj Mahal while Honey Bee harks back to the days of innuendo laden viperish jazz torch songs (think of Betty Boop). DeMeyer milks the song for all it’s worth as Kimbrough adds a wonderfully lazy backbeat. All three are excellent but they are but crumbs in comparison to the main course on offer here.
The album opens with Everything, Kimbrough’s delicate acoustic guitar leading into an enchanting song of enduring love that immediately showcases their vocal empathy. Broken Fences is more spirited with Kimbrough’s voice to the fore on a frontier number with gutsy guitar runs on a song that might have sprung from the pen of Steve Young. There’s some Dr. John like gumbo on the sultry Rainy Day (with Chris Woods taking on the double bass role here with some gusto) and speaking of Dr John New Orleans is the subject of one of the highlights here. An impressionistic take on the Crescent City with Kimbrough’s sole guitar strumming beneath the pair’s breathy vocals, Little Easy is suffused with sensations of the city, the shining stars, reflections on the water, muddy banks and a hot and heavy breeze. It’s a wonderful song and the pair match it with the snapshot of a street seller in Carpet Beggar’s Lullaby, again a song that is delicate and empathetic. The title track meanwhile is a soulful number with Kimbrough picking some fat and curly guitar like Pops Staples as DeMeyer testifies.
The album ends with a surprise as the pair tackle an old Incredible String Band Song from 1966, October Song. A Kimbrough suggestion apparently but one which reminded DeMeyer of Townes Van Zandt when she first heard the guitar part. It’s a breathtaking reinvention of the song transporting it from the cold climes of an Edinburgh winter high into the Appalachians. Kimbrough’s guitar cascades throughout with frills and runs as he and DeMeyer hit some high lonesome notes with their performance here rivalling the best of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It’s simply wonderful.
Mockingbird Soul is one of those albums that will surely grow in stature as word of its excellence spreads. Helping to spread the word Kimbrough and DeMeyer are touring the UK in March and the good news is that they visit Glasgow on 24th March for a Sounds In The Suburbs show at a new venue, the Fox Star Club in The Argyll Hotel, 973 Sauchiehall St. A gig not to be missed.
Will Kimbrough website
Brigitte DeMeyer website