Some great songs, some less so, from our friends in the Great White North.
Canadian roots outfit Blackie and the Rodeo Kings play an acoustic form of country-tinged Americana heavily infused with warm vocals, which are attributed to co-guitarists Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson. The group has released several albums since its 1999 debut Kings of Love; new album South arrives sporting a somewhat starker, more stripped-down sound than previously heard on such albums as 2012's Kings and Queens and 2008’s Swinging From the Chains of Love.
South leads off with a pair of tracks, “North” and “South”, which both use a gently loping bass to propel the tune. “North” is primarily made up of acoustic strumming and a gently shuffling rhythm, while “South”, one of the better songs on the album, benefits from a heartfelt vocal performance, gurgling organ undercurrents, and a memorable melody. The mood of both songs is wistful, if not altogether elegiac, which sets the tone for the balance of the record.
That wistfulness runs through many tracks here, including the down-tempo “I’d Have to be a Stone”, which in other hands might sound an awful lot like a soul song, and the outstanding “Driftin Snow”, which closes out the album. Another mournful, almost yodeling reflection on the mixed experiences of wandering far from home, “Driftin Snow” makes good use of powerful harmony vocals, snappy guitar playing (including some sweet acoustic lead breaks), and a thrumming, propulsive rhythm that closes the album on a strong note.
That’s the good news. The less good news is that few of the other songs are as good, and in fact a number of tunes lack enough energy to make much impression. These tend to be down-tempo numbers, but not always, and sometimes they fall prey to lyrical cheesiness. Exhibit A of this would be “Reinventing the Wheel of Love”, which is about as hokey as you think it’s going to be. It doesn't help matters that the music is a bland wash of acoustic strumming without much by way of hooks for a listener to hang on to.
This is followed by “Try Try Try Again”, which offers a little more in the way of bounce but not much in terms of lyrical interest. “Fleur de Lys” follows, a perfectly serviceable song that makes little impression even after repeated listenings, to make a perfect trifecta of forgettability. Fortunately, “Driftin Snow” shows up just in time to snap the spell, remind the listener of what these guys are capable of at their best, and prevent the album from just withering away altogether.
Overall, then, South is very much a mixed bag. A strong mood is set early on and maintained through to the end, and the good songs are strong. The weak ones, however, are unmemorable indeed. The musicianship is top-notch throughout, and there is plenty of room for these songs to breathe, with none of the clutter and overproduction that can mar mainstream country music. This is all to the album’s favor, but the weak middle section of tunes undermines much of what’s good. It’s hard to recommend this album; new listeners should probably proceed with caution.