Black, Mordant Roots Rock
Allow me a personal digression for a moment. Toronto roots-rock band Enter the Haggis is certainly well known to me: I interviewed bagpiper Craig Downie for a feature article in the summer of 1998 when the band was more or less starting out and I was on the cusp of graduating from journalism school. I was, at the time, working as a freelancer in the Arts section of the Ottawa Citizen, a major daily broadsheet newspaper, and, to make a long story short, that feature article for the Citizen wound up being used on the front of the Arts section much to my surprise -– my first section front. My parents laminated and framed the story as a graduation gift, and so the piece and the accompanying picture of smiling, bald-headed Downie now hangs on the wall above my home entertainment system in my apartment -– an image I’ve walked by in various abodes I’ve lived in going on 14 years now. I also recall that Downie was so thrilled to get such primo coverage that he called me at work to thank me personally (he should have thanked my editor), and to offer up his apartment to me should I ever venture to Toronto for a visit -– an offer I never took up at the time. But it was a nice gesture.
That’s just a winded way of saying that, in 2012, I can report that the congenial Enter the Haggis is still an ongoing concern, and I couldn’t be happier for what appears to be a nice bunch of lads. However, some change has occurred in the band since the late 20th Century. While the album the band was touring behind in 1998 featured tweaked, fun versions of Celtic jigs, the group’s sixth album Whitelake is by turns a very serious affair. When a band covers the lauded and late Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers, as they do here on the final track “White Squall”, you know that’s a shot at respectability in their home land. Elsewhere, the overall sound of the album aims for a country-folk-rock hybrid that tries to nestle itself in with the likes of Mumford and Sons or the Decemberists, but comes off sounding more poppy, bringing to mind the acoustic soft alterna rock of Toad the Wet Sprocket -– not necessarily a bad thing. And the overall tone of the album is dark: “The Whistleblower” is about an ex-child solder returning to his home, “Devil’s Son” is about the suicide of fraudster Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark, and “Of A Murder” is about pretty much what you’d expect, subject-matter wise. Enter the Haggis, clearly, has lost a little of their sense of whimsy.
However, Whitelake isn’t really a bad album. For instance, it boasts a really great modern rock track in “Getaway Car” with its shimmery guitar line that stews under the surface before erupting during the choruses. The thing is that while the songs are generally strong -– save for the bluesy country-rock anthem “Pseumoustophy”, which comes off as kind of goofy -– the album does suffer a bit from a lack of direction. Literally every kind of musical influence is thrown into the pot and stirred -– rock, folk, country, Middle Eastern influences, jazz, Celtic, et cetera -– so what you get is a patchwork quilt of a record that isn’t really all that focused. Still, Whitelake, in its generally poppy direction, is a better effort than what fellow Canuck Celtic-folk band Great Big Sea is doing on album lately, by not copping to syrupy balladry. Slick and well-produced, Whitelake is a flawed gem that you might like in spite of its generally overly dark ambition. These are swell guys with their sights on international markets -– the group is touring Ireland in April 2012, and spends a great deal of time playing in America -– and I certainly wish no ill will towards people willing to open their homes to complete strangers out of kindness. Whitelake isn’t perfect, but, and you wouldn’t guess this from the mordant subject matter, it is made by some perfectly good, decent human beings worth supporting.