Canadian folk-rock group Skydiggers have, throughout their 20-plus years in existence, almost become more well known for their troubles with record labels than any music they’ve recorded, acting as little more than a primer and a cautionary tale for Canuck acts looking to break big. They were signed with a couple of mid-level labels in the early ‘90s and were a fairly popular draw on the pub circuit, but failed to make the big breakthrough to the next level. Those labels the group had been signed with went bankrupt by the mid-‘90s, putting the group’s first three albums out of print. When the band wanted to re-release what is considered to be their high-water mark, 1992’s Restless, by the end of the decade, the band was unsuccessful at winning back the rights to the master tapes, forcing them to put out an album of demos cobbled from that record’s sessions called Still Restless independently. They, too, made the leap to a major label in Canada for 1995’s Road Radio, but, once again, the sales weren’t exactly what the record company was looking for, and the band soon saw itself back in indie land once again rather than get pressured by their label into delivering a hit record simply for the sake of it. It’s little surprise that the band has had such bad luck getting their material distributed, that the group, along with entrepreneur Grant Dexter, would wind up forming their own label to help Canadian musicians get exposure. That label, MapleMusic Recordings, now backs or has backed such successful musicians as Kathleen Edwards, Sam Roberts, Joel Plaskett and many, many others.
With these difficulties—not to mention the fact that founding member Peter Cash, who built part of the vocal foundation of the band’s sound, left in the mid-‘90s—now well behind them, the band has broken a three-year silence to release their eighth studio album, a sprawling nearly-hour long collection of 15 songs called Northern Shore. For this album, the band reached into the past, taking songs that predated the existence of the group—such as “Liar, Liar”, a collaboration between vocalist Andy Maize and guitarist Josh Finlayson—as well as covering Mickey Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long”. The group also briefly welcomes back Peter Cash here as a guitarist and vocalist on “Barely Made It Through”, co-written by Peter and his brother Andrew, a singer-songwriter who made a mark in Canadian music in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s as a solo performer and has since gone onto a political career as an elected Member of Parliament at the federal level for the socialist New Democratic Party. Two of Andrew’s other songs make appearances here as well. In addition to all of this, the band lets Jessy Bell Smith, a guest performer, take over the lead vocals for the song “Deep Water (31 Mile Lake)”. Does that sound like a record with a lot going on? Yes. Yes, it does.
The fact that there’s so much variety and difference to be found on Northern Shore makes the record feel more like a collection of songs—a lot of songs—and the band was throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall to make them stick. This sometimes works to the band’s advantage—“Barely Made It Through” and “Why You Been Gone So Long” are rollicking numbers that feel particularly off-the-cuff—and sometimes it doesn’t—the sort of solemn, yet rocking “Deep Water (31 Mile Lake)” drunkenly stumbles into “Why You Been Gone So Long”, making a case for the fact that the album wasn’t particularly sequenced very well. There’s also a lingering sense that the group is kind of going through the motions on the record, that they’d set out to make a Skydiggers record by throwing everything they had in the pot and stirring it as opposed to really thinking about what would be the very best material to include, leading one to argue that perhaps a few of the songs could have been pruned to make the record a much more manageable length and something a bit more consistent.
Still, for such criticism, there’s a fair amount of stuff here that does work here and works well. A song like “Barely Made It Through” is almost a Canadian take on the Jayhawks’ classic sound. “Fire Engine (Red Explosion)” has a very groovy, funky feel to it with its jittery organs and horns, and “You Been Gone So Long” (not to be confused with the aforementioned “Why You Been Gone So Long”) is a great acoustic guitar ditty. “Wake Up Little Darling” is a sterling piano ballad, pulled from Andrew Cash’s songbook. Uniformly, the 15 songs that make up this album range from good to great, without a real stumble in sight. However, Northern Shore is the sound of a band that wants to be a crowd pleaser and give a lot of different styles to their fans in the hopes of pleasing someone, but might ultimately have the effect of turning off listeners, pleasing no one. Thus, Northern Shore is a behemoth of a record, and nearly collapses under its own weight. That all said, undiscerning fans will probably like it, and seeing that the group’s lauded early material is, well, a little hard to come by, thanks to all of those legal and rights issues, Northern Shore is a good starting point for anyone interested in the rootsier alternative sounds that came out of the Northland during a good part of the 1990s. Nothing here is going to put the Skydiggers on the level of a vaulted Canadian band like Blue Rodeo or the Tragically Hip (which is kinda ironic considering the Skydiggers recorded portions of this disc at both of those bands’ home studios), but here the group more or less holds its own, and gives listeners a pretty good indication as to why pub-goers like this brand of music. The legacy of the Skydiggers might be one of a band getting railroaded by their handlers, but Northern Shore reminds us that, for all of the group’s troubles at simply getting product into the hands of listeners, it has more than enough good tunes that satisfy—when they can get them heard.