[21 July 2014]
When I was 19, I worked a summer job at a lumber mill, a terrible experience that I’ve already recounted here on PopMatters. And, of course, I got my fill of New Country, courtesy of the radio in the lumber piling shed I worked in. Honestly, I’m pretty surprised that I’m not currently sitting in a jail cell from swinging a two-by-four at one of my fellow pilers and beating them to a bloody pulp when they switched the radio from the local rock station to one of the country stations dotting the dial. Needless to say, New Country is not my favourite genre of music. Now, I like country – I enjoy Hank Williams, Sr. and Patsy Cline, but New Country? Agh! There’s just something in the inauthentic and syrupy sounds of artists of that ilk that drives me up the wall. So, you would probably think based on this that I’d be ready to bring out the knives for Canadian country act Carly-Jo, comprised of two sisters from Burlington, Ontario, who only go by their first names Carly and Jo. Surprisingly, I greatly enjoyed their self-titled debut album, and it may just be a superlative example of what the genre is supposed to be: pop enough to be accessible to a cross-over audience, but have enough of an edge to let you get your crap kicking boots on.
Basically, Carly-Jo is Canada’s answer to the Dixie Chicks, but such a comparison wouldn’t be doing this act any favours, even though they have just as much sass and spunk as the Chicks. It turns out that Carly-Jo is one hardworking outfit, having posted a series of webcasts to their website about the whole process behind recording and releasing their debut, in an effort to share with their fans a behind the scenes look at what it takes to be a major recording artist. Recorded in Toronto and Nashville, Carly-Jo boasts turns from such sort of A-list talent as drummer Chris McHugh, who has worked with Keith Urban, and Sheryl Crow guitarist Tom Bukovac. And here’s the rub: practically each song on Carly-Jo could be a bona-fide single in its own right, so strong is this 10-track collection. There is nary a duff track in the bunch. What helps is that Carly-Jo believes in empowerment, and swing with a sort of sexiness and frankness that is widely appealing. (According to the duo’s website, Jo even has a profile on dating site Plenty of Fish under the title “Kinky Cowgirl looking for a ride.”)
Things heat up early with single “Turn On the Oven”, which is a paean to basically getting some great marital sex: “When I come home and I’m complaining / That just means I had a bad day / If I say I don’t want nothing / Don’t you listen to what I say.” When the chorus kicks in, the rock guitars get amped up and fists may pump in the air. But just when you think things might get too hot, the girls dial down the heat with “Flower”, which is a gentle acoustic strum and an ode to female liberation: “I am a flower in the field / ... I’m happy on my own / I can grow as wild as I want.” Banjos flare on “Lazarus”, which boasts namechecks of Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. Things get nasty on “Hornet’s Nest”, which shows the women scorning men who try to cheat in a relationship: “Gonna wish you were dead / You kicked a hornet’s nest / Now you know that I know that you’ve been cheating / We don’t get mad / We get even.” If there’s a slight miscue, though, it’s that “Shape Up”, while being a rocker in the best tradition of Shania Twain, owes more than a passing resemblance to the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” – try singing the lyrics to that song over this, and you’ll see what I mean. Still, this album has more than enough memorable moments to make up for this, especially “Blue”, which has a ‘70s soft rock feel to it that is utterly soulful. And “6 Years Later” is a nimble finger-picked song about the seven-year itch.
Overall, Carly-Jo is studded with wall-to-wall gems, and is near the top of the heap in what is otherwise a derisive genre of music. You’ll listen to this and wonder why all New Country, or pop country, can’t be as good as this. This isn’t hurting music typically, this is bright and powerful music. If you want to hear women roar, buy this album. Carly and Jo have a broad appeal, and are utterly playful and earnest in equal measure. It’s clearly evident from Carly-Jo that this is an outfit that has paid its dues (and are perhaps still paying them), but all of the muscle grease more than amply pays off. Even if you aren’t a fan of the New Country genre, you may find something to admire with this LP. I only wish this act had been around in 1995, during my summer of hell, because I probably would have reconsidered my lack of appreciation for the genre. Carly-Jo is a magnificent addition to New Country sounds, and represents the very best of what country-pop, country-rock or whatever you want to call it has to offer. It’s, quite simply, brilliant.