[20 August 2008]
I recall this one time when I was on a road trip with a friend and I decided to slide the Band’s Greatest Hits into the CD player. After some distance was covered and a handful of tracks had played, he asked me, “What is this, some kind of Newfie music?” Now, the specific valences of the term “Newfie” may well be lost on non-Canadian readers, so forgive a brief elaboration. “Newfie” is derogatory slang for a person from the province of Newfoundland, a rocky, forbidding island north of Nova Scotia with strong Celtic roots. The province fell on hard socioeconomic times when the cod disappeared from the Grand Banks, forcing “Newfies” to spread across Canada in search of jobs. As a result, they have inflamed the latent ethnocentrism dormant in polite Canucks, many of whom slot Newfies into the same unenviable cultural position that the Irish occupied in the British Empire. In short, “Newfie” is not something you want to be. And if even a venerable rock institution like the Band can be tarred with the Newfie brush for daring to use fiddle in “Acadian Driftwood”, then the prejudice is firmly ensconced.
Maybe it’s a cognitive stretch, but it seems to me that folk music can meet with a similar prejudice. Knee-jerk reactions to the genre tend to be unkind: it’s middlebrow, it’s self-serious, it’s regressive, it’s dull, it has no new ideas, etc. Seemingly afraid of the pitfalls of pigeonholing, neo-folkies either retreat from traditional trappings or mesh traditions together into an elusive mosaic that can appear more forward-looking than it actually is. The latter is the approach favored by Winnipeg’s the Duhks (pronounced “ducks”), and its general success in their specific application doesn’t quite erase its peculiar dissonance.
On their third Sugar Hill release, the Grammy-nominated group confidently offers up their witches’ brew of zydeco rhythm, Appalachian banjo-picking, Celtic fiddle flourishes, and newly-minted lead singer Sarah Dugas’s soul-queen vocals for consumption. And there’s no question that it’s often thirst-quenching. The opening two-punch combo of “Mighty Storm” and the title track dissolves dashes of rootsy character into rock heaviness (the opposite effect to their live cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, which met with the approval and even participation of John Paul Jones). “This Fall” is a smoothly jerking Slavic-circus waltz, and “You Don’t See It” betrays lurking melodic-pop sensibilities. Virtuosity is never in question on the instrumentals, and Dugas is a convincing enough white-girl Aretha-proxy to push her way through the folksy tapestry with muscular aplomb.
All this is certainly enough for a solid recommendation. But there’s a high wall yet between this band and brilliance. Maybe it’s the polished sheen provided by producer Jay Joyce, which further undercuts distinctive elements already diluted by furious intermixing. Maybe it’s those moments when Dugas’ performance fails to distinguish itself from the long tradition of soul singing. Maybe it’s the occasional dodginess of the lyrics. Or maybe, ultimately, the Duhks contort themselves and their chosen vernacular so drastically in order to evade snide “Newfie music” labeling that the simple eloquence they strive for is lost in the perspiration. The strain shows on Fast Paced World, and for all its modest successes, one can’t shake the feeling that this should seem a little more effortless than it does.