Hailing from the deep dark woods of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, this rugged outfit makes its Sugar Hill debut with The Place I Left Behind, a 13-song, hour-long affirmation of the band’s reputation as solid leaders in the American roots music scene. This is the group’s fourth release and first since 2009’s fine Winter Hours but the wait—as short as it’s been—has been more than worth it.
The opening “Westside Street” is a curiosity, sounding like an eerie, late-night cut born of A.M. radio and all-but-empty country roads. More than that it proves that roots music has always had pop edges and that you can get people’s fists pumping and feet moving without mimicking Bruce Springsteen’s mid-1980s stadium anthems. The titular track offers more of the same with eerie (that word again), foreboding vocals and chilly folk instrumentation, sounding alternately like despair and redemption. Ryan Boldt’s often icy but always emotive voice works its magic on “Mary’s Gone” and the hymnal, Band-ish “The Banks of the Leopold Canal”, among others.
When the band raises its hair and saunters gently into rocking terrain, such as “Back Alley Blues” and “Virginia”, it—ironically enough—loses some of its power and certainly some of its fine sense of nuance, but never so much of either as to derail the record. Moreover, the Deep Dark Woods is at its best when abandoning convention as it does toward the end of “Never Prove False”, when the plodding ballad morphs into some sort of backwoods stomping waltz, sounding like a band of ghosts playing its final coda before the night, the band, and the audience finally cross once and for all into that other world.
That same, sinking feeling permeates the seven-plus-minute “The Ballad of Frank Dupree”, the record’s penultimate track and one more stab at writing the ultimate epic ballad. It, like so much of the rest of the record, works better than perhaps the band could have hoped for as it transports the listener to some place not of this world and somewhere that is both familiar and yet utterly new.
The only genuinely forgettable moments on the record is “Dear John”, which quickly becomes weighed down by roller rink organ lines, but disaster is quickly averted by the closing “Oh, What a Life”. That said, if there’s one thing problematic about this record it is the lack of variety—there are about 10 too many minutes of dirges that ultimate prove a bit too heavy to call The Place I Left Behind an unqualified success. But with as much good writing, playing, and singing as there is to be found here, it’s hard to complain about being in the presence of a band that does all of this so well.
If the Deep Dark Woods doesn’t earn immediate commercial accolades with this release it’s more a testament to a band that is a little bit ahead of its time, and a stubborn public that’s too rooted in the now, than any real failing on the band’s part.