[28 April 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ever wonder what country music would sound like if it had a touch of psychedelia to it? Well, Toronto’s the Highest Order has the answer, and to hear it is to hear something profound and staggering. The band is actually an offshoot of the group One Hundred Dollars, which has been a two-time Polaris Prize longlist nominee and the subject of another offshoot band called Fiver (so, yes, One Hundred Dollars is a pretty busy outfit). Taking inspiration from the likes of the solo career of Gene Clark (of the Byrds), the International Submarine Band and New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Highest Order turns to be a rather apt band name. This is music of the highest order, and I doubt a finer country-rock album than the band’s debut, If It’s Real, will come out of Canada, or anywhere else, this year. Drenched in heavy reverb and haunting melodies, this is music for playing at night as you travel down some lonesome back road with the lights of approaching cars and trucks providing halos on your cracked windshield. This album is, indeed, the real deal. Hear it, and you cannot deny its power, how closely it hues to the slightly off-kilter country sounds of fellow Canadians the Sadies or even the towering powerhouse of early Cowboy Junkies. If It’s Real is monumental in size and scope, and it reaches out and grabs you by your rhinestone-studded Nudie Suit and wrestles you to the ground.
The album deftly includes two covers of classics: Gram Parsons’ “Luxury Liner” makes an appearance, as well as a spacey take on Grammy-winner Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends”. The band makes these songs its own, and you would be forgiven for thinking that they are originals. “Luxury Liner”, in particular, has a jaunty nature to it that has a real swagger and gallop, augmented by the rather unusual choice of employing a female lead vocalist on it (of whom I’ll spend more ink on in a moment or two). And “Lonely Weekends” is a captivating yarn given a druggy feel, as though the song is wrapped around a haze of opiates. However, as strong as these covers are, the original material stacks up well against it. “Rainbow of Blues” has a very Haight-Ashbury strum to it, and one could easily imagine Janis Joplin having her way with the tune. And “Offer Still Stands”, one of my favourite tracks, has a certain sense of yearning, and it comes across as the more straightforward country songs to be had on the album. “Chain Mail” has an almost folkloric feel, and it comes through the wringer as being as emotional as any song by Johnny Cash. Meanwhile, “Sacred Team” has a neat trick—towards the end of the song, it slows down at a warped warble, as though it were being played on a record player that was losing steam, making the material sound trippy.
The record’s real secret weapon, though, is vocalist Simone Schmidt, who sings on most of the tracks here. She has a commanding, powerful voice that booms and is deep—think of a feminine Cash and you’d be along the right path, or even a more sultry version of Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies, if you’d prefer. It’s the kind of voice that you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with in a parking lot of some scuzzy dive, lest you want a beer bottle smashed over your head. Schmidt conveys an urgent sense of angst and anxiety in these tales of boozy love and loneliness. You can practically feel the alienation drenched in her vocal chords, a sense of being jilted, and the album propels itself along, anchored by the emotion and feeling of her singing. I personally haven’t heard a voice this captivating and tough as nails in all of its vulnerability in quite some time, and I’m quite smitten and taken by the way Schmidt uses her baritone as a tool, another musical instrument that gives If It’s Real a rather far out quality, and makes it seem even more woozy with her take on late night debauchery. In a sense, Schmidt elevates what’s already quite strong material into another transcendent realm altogether – taking the music of the Highest Order to a true pinnacle of musical achievement.
In short, If It’s Real is so exceptional, I’d gladly buy this album in duplicate for friends to hear. This is simply a record that you must have, because you simply just don’t listen to it—you feel it. If It’s Real is like a twisted knife in your gut, so unflinching in its raw honesty. Every song is a standout, even the three-part “Cosmic Manipulations”, which starts out dripped in reverb and muffled vocals, and gets slightly more powerful and profound as each movement, scattered across the album, is added to the mix. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this is a nearly tornado-proof album. I can find virtually no fault with it, aside from the fact that it may be a tad short even at a typical album length at 38 minutes. You just want to go along for this ride on and on, and take a protracted journey with this group of ragtag troubadours. Here’s hoping that this isn’t a one-off offshoot, and we’ll have more to hear from this talented group of Canadian musicians. I can’t get enough of If It’s Real, and, chances are, if you get an opportunity to experience this soaring artistic statement masquerading as a country-rock album with psychedelic touches, you won’t be able to, either. This is real. And honest. And profound. And I want to hear it all over again.