I have a mental picture, while listening to the Deep Dark Woods new album Jubilee, of the band sitting in a smoky, semi-darkened wood paneled room. They’re in a log cabin somewhere, dusty sunlight slanting through a curtained window while a record player spins the Smithsonian Folkways collection and records by the Band. An air of stately melancholy hangs over the picture.
With Jubilee, Canadian band the Deep Dark Woods appear to be trying to emulate the folksongs of the “old, weird America” (as music scribe Greil Marcus referred to the stark, often strange folk songs of America’s past) in a similar style to what Bob Dylan and the Band accomplished on The Basement Tapes over 40 years ago. What’s different is that Dylan and the Band did a lot of covers of traditional pieces along with similar-in-style songs written by Dylan and mixed things up with material that could be eerie and mysterious on one song and humorous on the next. Their explorations through the cobwebs of a hidden, forgotten past contained an aura of experimentation and adventurousness. Jubilee, however, is primarily a set of bleak songs of drinking, lost love, and misfortune. The Deep Dark Woods mine the same hushed, somber mood on over half of the songs. There’s very little that’s jubilant about this collection of deep dark Americana.
Recorded in a cabin in Alberta (see, my mental picture isn’t too far off) with retro California singer/songwriter/producer Jonathan Wilson at the helm, Jubilee was mostly recorded live. Yet, it’s a very meticulous sounding album. That’s not a negative. The measured, cohesive interplay of the band is a product of their experience and comfort playing together going on 10 years. You can also chalk up this close-knit playing to the recording environment inherent in a small cabin. This environment also lends itself to the intimate and warm tones of the songs.
Despite the cozy recording locale, there’s a restlessness in the lyrics of many of the songs. It’s a lazy, sleepy restlessness, though. “I’ve got leaving on my mind” lead vocalist Ryan Boldt intones in “Been a Long Time”, but the song is so lethargic with its muted horns, distant guitar strums and organ that it seems Boldt will fall asleep before he actually goes anywhere. In fact, he soon sings “I’m so lonely / I just wanna go home / Can’t even open up my eyes.”
This wish to be moving surfaces again on one of the strongest songs on the album, “18th of December”: “I’ve never been to Paris / Still never been to Maine/ I’d sure like California / I could leave on the next train”. Though it’s one of the standout tracks the melody is familiar, calling to mind folk songs “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Shady Grove.”
In the true folk story telling tradition, the grim waltz of “Pacing the Room” features a narrator who’s been abandoned by a “fair young maiden”: “I’m leaving this country / My bag’s in my hand / I’m leaving sweet Susie / The finest in the land / Her father he hates me / He says I’m too poor / Now I’m pacing the room / and I’m bitter to the core / I’m pacing the room ‘cause of you.”
When the album strays from its gothic folk roadmap, it often sounds like Neil Young. “Miles and Miles”, which leads off the album, is a dead ringer for a lost Young song, from the lead vocals to the distorted electric guitar sound. The country blues “Red, Red Rose” also bears similarities to Neil Young. In this case, his “Love Is a Rose”, if the Band’s Garth Hudson and Levon Helm were guesting on the track (which they aren’t.)
On the closing song, “The Same Thing”, (which actually is more of the same thing, as far as being very subdued) the band manages to stretch out a bit on the 10-minute-plus loping blues shuffle. Yet, it’s as if they’re having trouble staying awake, till the last minute or two when they manage to bring things to…well, not quite a fever pitch, but a noticeable rise. They end the song, and so the album, with some nice guitar and organ dynamics, playing fluidly off each other. A few more songs like the carefree ode to New Orleans that is “Bourbon Street”, and the harmony-laden country-folk jangle of “East St. Louis” (“’Cause they don’t dump bodies in East St. Louis anymore”) and even another “Red, Red Rose” or two would give the album more balance and diversity. As it is, Jubilee feels like a long, slow dirge.