During the past several years, over the course of three albums, Toronto’s the Deadly Snakes have emerged as one of Canada’s finest rock ‘n’ roll bands, thanks to their fun, raucous blend of roots rock, R&B, and Nuggets-era garage rock. It was especially their boisterous 2003 album, the well-received Ode to Joy, that really turned some heads, thanks to the impassioned, raw, inebriated vocal stylings of singers Max Danger and Andre Ethier. One listen to the relentless stomp of the country-blues number “Oh My Bride”, and you’d be wondering why a revivalist like Jack White could rise to great prominence, and not these guys. It’s Ethier who stands out the most in this band, his rough, swaggering (some might think staggering), soulful vocals elevating the Deadly Snakes above most of the other dozens of young garage bands in North America. With a singer-songwriter this talented, it was only a matter of time before we were treated to a full length solo release, and lo and behold, here it is, bearing the spectacularly marble-mouthed title, Andre Ethier with Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles and Price.
If you’re a fan of the Deadly Snakes, you will love this album. If you’ve never heard a Deadly Snakes album, well, are you in for some fun. Like the recently released solo debut by Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, you have a case where a guy who’s more well-known for playing some big-time, loud rock music, tones things down considerably, using a more acoustic approach. Like Hood’s Killers and Stars, Ethier’s first solo effort was hastily thrown together in two days, but instead of the dark, therapeutic, catharsis of Hood’s album, Ethier, while exploring some dark themes himself, keeps the mood mostly high-spirited, charming, and facetiously self-deprecating.
To put it simply, Andre Ethier with Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles and Price shamelessly models itself after Bob Dylan’s great Basement Tapes album. Dylan, who holed himself up in Woodstock, New York with his backing group the Band, in 1967, recorded some of his most endearing, enduring songs during that period, creating an eclectic collection of songs that mined American popular music’s folk and country past, all the while remaining relaxed, just having fun. That exact feeling is what you get on Ethier’s album, as you hear him and his friends (Christopher Sandes on piano and electric guitar, Pickles and Price on bass and drums) sitting back and having a blast in the studio.
Ethier takes to the clichéd, romantic barfly persona like Bukowski to beer, as he pulls off the same kind of slurred, red-eyed, down in the dumps poetic schtick that made Tom Waits and Paul Westerberg famous, with great ease. “Let Me Put My Suitcase Down”, with its forlorn piano chords and lazily strummed acoustic guitar, has Ethier delivering his blues-inspired lines with a raggedy, quavering voice: “I’ve slept beneath rocks and trees / Out on the clover with the honey bees,” before moaning pleadingly in the refrain, “Oh, won’t you let me put my suitcase down?” The terrific “Sweep Up After Me” is more upbeat, punctuated by Sandes’s descending piano lick, with Ethier singing with tongue firmly in cheek, “Have I not been a true love to you? / And tip my hat as you’ve passed through? / Now sweep up after me”.
Meanwhile, the rest of the album alternates between buoyant and melancholy: the exuberant “Little Saddy” is a fun attempt at a traditional blues tune (punctuated by some whimsical electric guitar work by Sandes), while the murky, gothic tale “Sinners” has more of a Tom Waits feel in both the music and the lyrical imagery (in this particular case, a swarm of a thousand wasps). Ethier’s versatile voice does a fantastic Dylan impersonation on several tracks, sounding uncannily similar to Dylan’s vocal phrasing circa 1965. The ascending chords in “Last Line” bear a slight similarity in tone to “Positively 4th Street”, while the blues-drenched rock of “Dear John” sounds straight out of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited period, as Ethier howls like a young Bob, spewing romantic poetry: “I’ve been a fool and a Philistine for you / Please don’t make me sleep out in the cold”. The minimal arrangement of ukulele and piano on the grim “She Will Never Be Your Girl” works just as well, as Ethier strums away sadly, his words achieving a truly sublime, surreal quality, as he croons, “And even Jesus Christ himself / Would be loosening his belt / And even Stalin from his tomb / Would rise inside her womb / But she’s older in this world / And she’s never been a girl”.
The word “Dylanesque” is one that has been used far, far too many times over the past 30-odd years, but you know, sometimes you’ve got to just suck it up, throw your thesaurus out the window, and type the damn word. Andre Ethier With Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles and Price isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but this album is so exuberant, it’s all too easy to forget such quibbles. One of the most pleasant surprises of 2004, this one deserves a big, beer-drenched thumbs-up.