[14 December 2009]
Elliott Brood, a three-piece outfit from Toronto, have been practicing their unique brand of creepy frontier ambience, which some have dubbed death-country, since 2004, giving us the morosely sepulchral Ambassador and now the paradoxical morbidity of Mountains Meadows. While the title conveys a kind of Ansel Adams serenity, their latest release actually revolves around the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre in Utah, though it’s more of a narrative reimagining of its aftermath than an exaltation of the actual events. With this in mind the overall mood of the album is surprisingly upbeat for the band, as the lyrical content and song structures are relatively optimistic.
In terms of music, Elliott Brood are purveyors of a metal-tinged hybrid of folk and country that calls to mind the delicate and desolate observances of fellow Canadians the Great Lake Swimmers. The pace, however, is much faster and urgent, and there is a cohesive focus on storytelling that captures the mood of exploration and tragedy with frightening insight. This quality in particular lends Elliott Brood a fascinating edge that increases in richness and depth after each listen, though this feeling could have been enhanced much further by the inclusion of a printed lyric sheet to match the rustic beauty of the album’s packaging.
“Fingers and Tongues” begins this tale with a shimmering aesthetic that allows singer Mark Sasso’s rusty voice to alternate between rhythmic intonation and an all-out wail that sets the tone for the entirety of Mountain Meadows. “T-Bill” is a banjo-driven touch of bluegrass, and “Write It All Down For You” is a crashing percussive masterpiece. Elliott Brood steps outside convention for a moment with the non-traditional ukulele and horns of “The Valley Town”, allowing Sasso to illustrate a prairie scene with lyrics like “When the wind bends the trees and them clouds are pushin’ east / come on inside, dry your clothes, warm your bones, fill your glass and set yourself at ease.”
Fit for the dusty and ominous atmosphere of the saloon, the piano and brass fanfare of “Woodward Avenue” is the closest Elliott Brood has ever come to a party anthem. “31 Years” proceeds with somber patience, and its description of a wagon-train convoy that perishes at the natural indifference of an impassable mountain is the album’s most haunting moment. “Chuckwagon” is a jarring and practically instrumental number that collides and thumps with menacing tenacity, and “Miss You Now” closes Mountain Meadows with Elliott Brood’s ensanguined version of the breakup song.
Constructing a musical novella out of possibilities and myth is far from easy, but Elliott Brood succeeds at the task with consistently impressive clarity given the tragic nature of the subject matter. In many ways Mountain Meadows is a more personal and muted folk rendering of Across Tundras’ Dark Songs of the Prairie, which is to say that it embodies the vast uncertainty of the American west in a way that honors the survivors, their legacy, and the memory of those that became the very spirit of adventure. Mountain Meadows is a prime example of the concept album done right, and Elliott Brood remain premier storytellers capable of drifting in between the planes of the lost, the found, the agonized, and the saved with deft realization.