A Love Letter to Canadian Country-Rock
I grew up in the small Ottawa Valley village of Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada. Being pretty much the last major centre with stores and a hospital for most people en route to camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, it’s a community that’s almost literally in the middle of nowhere, which means you have to make your own entertainment. That conversely means there have been some interesting bands that have come out of the region, to provide something exciting to a sleepy village on the cusp of sprawling forests that go on as far as the eye can see.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, we had the Wilno Express—a lauded folk outfit that played old timey material steeped in the Polish and Irish roots of the region. In the 1990s and beyond, there was the excellent Fireweed (now known as the Fireweed Company), a scorching outfit that has put out two albums in the span of almost 20 years and can play to audiences as big as 800 people in the region, which is not inconsequential when you realize that there’s only perhaps a few thousand people who live there. Now, I have a small-town connection to the Toronto-based roots rock band the Warped 45s. It seems, based on information from someone I know in the region, that the band’s nexus of cousins, Dave McEathron and Ryan Wayne McEathron, have family ties to Combermere, Ontario—a small hamlet about 20 minutes south of Barry’s Bay—and Dave lived in Whitney (another hamlet just to the west of where I grew up) for some period. So you would have to excuse me if I started in like a cheerleader here: while my relationship with my hometown is complex—it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there unless you wanted to work in the region’s primary lumber trade—I feel congratulatory toward anything that comes out of the place where I came of age. I guess part of it has to do with the fact that while there’s a healthy but small scene of musicians in the area, it’s an event when someone puts out an actual album, so you want to support such initiatives in any way that you can.
However, when I took a perfunctory spin of the Warped 45s’ sophomore album, Matador Sunset, the initial feeling that I had was one of, well, disappointment. I was expecting roots rock in the vein of alt-country, another Uncle Tupelo maybe: music played with a bit of punk urgency in the proceedings. What you get with this album, though, is something a little more closely positioned to the pop end of the spectrum. The songs are big and glossy, thanks to a polishing job done by producer and engineer John Critchley – a former member of the great ‘90s Canadian alternative rock band 13 Engines – and it really seems that the record is reaching to be played on New Country radio. While the band has been tagged with such identifiers as “Northern Gothic”, “Back Porch of the Apocalypse”, and “Alt-Country Noir”, the songwriting is actually firmly ensconced, at least partially, in the creaky sounds of older country music of the sort that they used to play on the CBC’s The Tommy Hunter Show, just with a slightly revisionist spin that would have the group nestle closely to the country pop of today.
In fact, there isn’t any real true grit to Matador Sunset, at least in a muscular musical sense, until you get to song five of this 11 track collection: “Hurdle River Crossing”. What’s more, there are songs on this collection that are silly, hokey and corny, if not a wee bit trite. The prime offender is the album’s singular straight-up rocker, purportedly a live favorite, “Live Bait”. It’s a song about a guy who sells ... wait for it ... dew worms, grubs, leeches and other squiggly critters for fishing. You can listen to a cut like that and imagine a sun bleached redneck in jean overalls with a piece of straw in his mouth (missing a few teeth), taking a swig of moonshine and then applauding with great gusto at the song’s conclusion and yelling out, “Yee-haw!” To put it more bluntly, you could follow up that song with “Dueling Banjos” on a mix tape, and it would seamlessly blend right in.
All that said, I realized that if I were to enjoy and get Matador Sunset, I had to reframe my perceptions and take the album for what it is: sort of a big, gooey love letter to the Ottawa Valley and Canada in particular. In fact, the song “Grampa Carl” appears to a biographical sketch of Ryan Wayne’s grandfather, who, according to the track, was a bootlegger for Al Capone during the Prohibition era. The song touches on some Valley folklore as it is said that Capone had a cabin in the wilds near Quadeville. There are also some great images of Canadiana in the lyrics—my favorite comes on the title track that closes the record which opens with the image of “hectares of hay bales like curlers in an old woman’s hair”. In all truthfulness, I found that the lyrics on the record are its strong suit. There are strikingly beautiful images to be found here, such as on “Voice of the Mountain’s Song”: “You are the sun burnt skyline on the West-coast shore/And I’ve never seen love so clearly before” is an example. There’s a real sense of the poetic in Matador Sunset, which will keep listeners’ ears glued to their speaker cones.
Once one gets over some of the hokey countrified songwriting, there’s some admirable material on the album. “Hurdle River Crossing” might just be my personal favorite song on Matador Sunset, with its wildly careening fiddles before a grimy deep fried guitar line kicks in with some delicious mandolin work, the kind of song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Steve Earle’s classic Copperhead Road. The title track is no slouch either, a quiet, gently laid-back song perfect for the back porch with the swing door slamming about in gusts of wind. “Grime of Earthly Glory” is an interesting cut in that it’s a rock-infused gospel track. “The Blade Thrower’s Wife” is a tasty stab at an acoustic ballad with some pretty pedal steel guitar in it – making it like a very early Wilco track.
This all said, though, Matador Sunset might not be to every country-rock aficionados taste, as some of the material is clearly so rooted almost in comedy (see “Live Bait” and, to a lesser degree, “Grampa Carl”). The Warped 45s clearly show that they’re a band of some promise, though I would have personally preferred if the group got a little more dirt underneath their fingernails and had much more of a blistering approach to their music—an album full of songs like “Hurdle River Crossing” would have been a real treat, indeed. Ultimately, Matador Sunset is an interesting but flawed album that doesn’t exactly congeal all of its rootsy and folksy influences. And yet, it gets more enjoyable with each successive listen as one gets used to its idiosyncrasies. Perhaps my tastes have been colored by years of city life, but Matador Sunset is an intriguing play and it is the sort of thing that works best if you’re a grizzled outdoorsy type who likes your music to have a bit of spit rubbed into the music. I’m not entirely sold on the Warped 45s, as much as I’d like to be based on my small town connection to the band, but that’s just probably because to fully appreciate the wonder of Matador Sunset, you have to be actually living in the country.
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