[6 January 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
When I was a young boy growing up in rural Ontario, Canada, there wasn’t a lot on TV in those days of the early ‘80s. See, my family only got three channels, one of them being quite snowy, but CBC TV pretty much came through. So that’s why, on Friday nights, I would watch a country music variety program called The Tommy Hunter Show. At the time, I wasn’t a huge fan of country music – in fact, I hated it – but there just simply wasn’t anything else on. Now, Tommy Hunter is a Canadian country music legend, and, on his show, which ran for an astounding 27 years (and was even picked up for a time by the Nashville Network or TNN, well, before it became Spike), he featured the likes of Johnny Cash, the Judds and Gordon Lightfoot, while giving a boost to then up-and-comers such as Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. (Even Alanis Morissette tried her hand at country music here.)
But the thing that sticks with me the most is that, at pretty much the end of every program, Hunter would do a sort of gospel spiritual, telling a story in song. He would settle at the edge of the stage against a stained-glass window backdrop, and perform part of whatever song that closed out the program with a spoken word bit, literally letting a tale unspool. It was probably my favourite part of the evening’s proceedings, given my inclination to being a future writer and storyteller of my own, and is the part that sticks out in my memory, at least. Well, I was taken back to those days of old when listening to the second album from the country male-female duo My Darling Clementine. Their latest album, The Reconciliation? actually opens with a song, “Unhappily Ever After”, that vividly recreates the kind of spoken story telling that Hunter would employ. While the duo is comprised of Michael Weston King, the former leader of ‘90s alt country group the Good Sons, and Lou Dalgleish, who has work with Elvis Costello, Bryan Ferry and the Brodsky Quartet on her résumé, the spoken word bit comes with guest Kinky Friedman providing a gravelly-voiced bit about unholy matrimony. It’s, in a word, affecting and transports one back in time to an much different era.
If that’s any indication, My Darling Clementine is an outfit that specializes in the kind of country music they just don’t make anymore, specifically ‘60s-style cosmopolitan country. What’s more surprising is you might think this group is rooted somewhere in Tennessee given those leanings, but it turns out that this duo is ... British! Surprise, surprise. Unless you knew of the group’s lineage, you would have never figured that out on your own as they successfully mine a kind of Americana that feels quite authentic. And on The Reconciliation? the group’s thematic is one of a couple on the verge of divorce, as though George Jones and Tammy Wynette were playing out their turbulent relationship over the course of an entire album. And if you think that’s a stretch, consider that there’s a tribute to Jones with first single “The Gospel According to George” and there’s another song called “No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him)”. There’s no doubt that Weston King and Dalgleish have an affinity for this style of music, being practically reverent to it with all of its hokiness and charm, and there’s no denying the fact that, during the course of the 12 songs that form the backbone of The Reconciliation?, that the group’s motives for unearthing a usually dormant style of music is sincere. You listen to this and you realize that the duo really, really likes old style American country. That’s a breath of fresh air in a country musical landscape of current times when most country singers are desperately trying hard to be rock stars. There’s no pretense here, other than fashioning some good ol’ fashioned songs, and that’s something to admire.
However, and you knew that a “however” was coming, the thing is that that very aspect of their music leads it to sound hopelessly dated. What’s more, the songs’ “on the verge of divorce” leanings are a little hard to take over a roughly 50-minute platter – there are two songs here with the word “unhappy” in the title – and there’s just no relief from the dire straits of non-marital bliss that is eschewed on The Reconciliation?, and note, too, the use of that question mark. That leads one to wonder just how much of the record is played for laughs, and how much of it is truly heartfelt, which undermines the group’s attempt to be reverent. Here, the subject matter of love birds at the end of their rope tends to get beaten to death, which, ultimately, makes it a tad exhausting to listen to. However, there are a quite a few glimmers, individual tunes that showcase what My Darling Clementine is so good at. The Muscle Shoals saxophones of “Our Race Is Run” are invigorating and lend a soulful curve to the record. Quasi-tender almost Christmas-like closing ballad “Miracle Mabel” is a revelation. And there’s a twangy infectiousness to “Leave the Good Book On the Shelf”. And, ultimately, this duo effectively bury any accents or signifiers that would lead one to believe that this isn’t anything over than true and true American country music.
So I’m a bit on the fence about The Reconciliation?, as it provides as much to think highly of as it does frustrate. If I were given a choice, I would probably choose to listen to this sort of thing over the shrill yodelings of modern country musicians who think they’re really a member of the Eagles. And, yet, I’m at arm’s length given the use of a hammer on the album’s theme. The Reconciliation? might have been better if there were a few more songs about happiness and the positive aspects of love. Or, at least, been a little clearer as to whether or not if the hard luck dealings of this LP were a joke or something genuine. Maybe what this record really needs is a “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” as a bit of levity, if the whole nature of it is really one of being tongue-in-cheek. Still, whatever the intension of The Reconciliation?, you walk away feeling hopeful that more music like this can get made, as this duo shows there’s something to be said about the style of music that feels very Grand Ole’ Opry-esque from that institution’s heyday. While it’s not clear if this was meant to be funny, or was deadly serious, The Reconciliation? makes a pretty strong case that hurting songs couldn’t feel so good to listen to. I’m sure that, somewhere out there, Tommy Hunter would definitely approve and is smiling.