Canadian twangsters, the Sadies, aren’t your typical alt-country act. Their music is steeped in country tradition, all right, but it’s much darker, and much more adventurous than just four guys plowing away at traditional roots music. Their music is sand-in-your-teeth gritty, evoking mental images of wind-blown wheat fields and horizons that seem a thousand miles away. Play a Sadies CD (say that 10 times as fast as you can) in your house, and you’ll get the urge to check your living room for tumbleweeds. What makes the Sadies so unique, other than the fact that they hail from Toronto, the furthest place you can be from open range land in Canada, is that they push the envelope of typical country music, throwing in other sounds, other than the old, reliable acoustic guitar, mandolin, and upright bass.
Stories Often Told is the Sadies’ fifth album in four years. The band (featuring brothers Dallas and Travis Good sharing guitar and vocal duties, bassist Sean Dean, and drummer Mike Belitsky) sounds like they’ve really hit their stride with this record. It’s leaner than their previous efforts, and therefore comes across as much more focused. Also, this is their first album that didn’t utilize the services of ace producer Steve Albini; instead, the band opted for Greg Keelor (a member of Canadian country-rock veterans Blue Rodeo), and with Keelor’s help, they take their trademark dustbowl sound and create something more cinematic, more adventurous.
“I’m still not sure what I should try to keep it all from coming back to haunt me,” sings Dallas Good on “Oak Ridges”, “If I can get away from harm’s way I’ll deserve whatever they unleash upon me”. Hardly your typical contemporary stab at down-home Americana, the Sadies bring a bit of darkness and paranoia into their music on Stories Often Told. There’s a heavy Calexico vibe on “Oak Ridges”, and Good’s baritone voice hits those foreboding Johnny Cash low notes with ease. “The Story’s Often Told” sounds like an outtake from Neil Young’s After the Goldrush, while the pretty ballad “Within a Stone” sounds heavily influenced by the Flying Burrito Brothers. The duet “A Steep Climb” resembles the early music of Leonard Cohen, as Dallas’s deep voice works well with his mother Margaret’s crooning, and the blend of 12-string guitar and sunny California country music on “Such a Little Word” harkens back to the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album.
This band really should be scoring Westerns. Four of the 11 tracks on Stories Often Told are instrumentals, and they’re a real kick to hear. Opening song “Lay DownYour Arms” combines the grandiose, galloping music that Ennio Morricone composed for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns with a cool hint of surf guitar; it’s as if Dick Dale did the music for Gunsmoke. Dallas and Travis Good have both played and recorded with country goddess Neko Case, and you can hear the influence the three had on each other on “A#1”, as the brothers use the same twangy, darkly freaky, Twin Peaks-like, heavy-on-the-reverb guitar that dominates much of Case’s recent Furnace Room Lullaby album. “Mile Over Mecca”, obviously, has more of a Middle Eastern influence in its melody, using droning guitar feedback and echoing, chiming 12-string guitars, in the end resembling the Byrds’ more adventurous moments. “Monkey & Cork”, which closes the album, is more of a light, jazzy piece that still has the surf-country influence lingering in the background, sounding as whimsical as its title.
The festivities reach their peak near the end of the album, thanks to two stellar tracks. The Sadies’ cover of the DQE song “Tiger Tiger” is a rollicking tune, the band adding a strong, raucous, ‘60s garage rock feel to the rockabilly song. “Of Our Land”, on the other hand, while still sounding firmly rooted in the 1960s, is more of an excursion into psychedelic rock. Co-written by Rick White, formerly of the Canadian noise rock outfit Eric’s Trip, the song combines droning, backwards guitars, more 12-string, vibraphones, a lugubrious beat, sleepy vocals, a middle section with nothing but feedback, an uptempo last third, and lyrics that would make Donovan proud: “Sing the mushroom’s eerie tale / Harmonize with the dragonflies / Stop to watch this spot we’re in / Alive, content, and tiny”.
The Sadies have always been a good band, but Stories Often Told is a big step forward. To compare them to someone like Wilco is neither fair nor accurate (Beachwood Sparks is closer to the Sadies’ sound), but like Jeff Tweedy and his cohorts, the Sadies show us on this album that they’re ready to permanently transcend the alt-country label people give them. And if they continue on their highly prolific run, we could be in for something special sooner than you think. You can practically envision a great album out on the horizon.