Even without the cover of “Cortez the Killer” perched like a grinning gargoyle right at the end of Live in NYC to tip us off, it’s a safe bet that at least one member of Canyon has a sacred spot in his record collection for Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Live Rust. Emulating the nearly overwhelming marriage of fragility and power exemplified by that acclaimed recording certainly appears to be a worthy if ambitious goal for this frankly oddball DC-based band. After only two previous full length albums, minimal press, and little discernible profile, why the hell not overreach? Release a “big” live album like they did back in the day, and see what sticks. Who cares spins, and who dares wins, right?
The All Music Guide lists as many as four bands with the name Canyon, but this particular entity is the musical progeny of Brandon Butler and Joe Winkle (formerly of Kansas City emo band Boys Life), Dave Bryson (formerly of Washington, DC-area post-hardcore outfit Blue Tip), Evan Berodt and Derry deBorja. Strangely, the sound that results from these meetings is about as far from either emo or visceral punk rock as you can get. It is in fact a bizarre amalgam of indie lo-fi, classic/country rock, Americana balladry, and a kind of ambient reverb-drenched spaciousness that itself feels like a hybrid of shoegazer rock and the more minimalist tones of a Low or Mojave 3. Unfortunately, that description makes Canyon sound slightly more interesting than they actually are. Live, this music certainly does approach the big, the swirling and the stadium-important, but when the light spattering of applause at the end of each song intrudes to spoil the illusion, the effect is not just jarring but a little silly.
Perhaps the silliest moment of all, in fact, is when the band cover the Stones’ “Play With Fire”. Jagger’s patented alleycat narcissism and bluster is replaced here by something more akin to a Persian curled on a rug. Unless I have misread the straight earnestness of the band, and mischief or irony informed their choice, this was not the song for this band to cover. Canyon do manage, however, to fare a lot better on the only other cover, the previously mentioned “Cortez the Killer”. The heartbreakingly patient braided guitar intro over a liquid melodeon-like tidal ebb feels like becalmed Spanish invaders wallowing on the cusp of a terrible destiny moments before taking a breath and disembarking in the Americas (“He came dancing across the water”). A fairly standard reworking of the vocal part itself swells steadily into a mournful and sustained sonic eulogy for a civilization rendered fatally vulnerable by guns, germs and steel. The record closes to the plaintive sound of these echoed and delayed swooping scavenger-bird guitar laments. Anthemic in a good way, if that’s possible.
Elsewhere, they pretty much mine their 2002 sophomore release, Empty Rooms — the source for six of these nine songs. Interestingly, not one note from their self-titled debut is revisited here, possibly indicating the band’s increasing preference for, and evolution toward, a richer and less minimalist sound. The best of these songs suggest one of those time-lapsed films of canyon walls (yes, that’s a glib and obvious metaphor, but Canyon are aptly named in terms of their overall sound) and the day’s dancing light swirling and eddying across them as evening’s burgundy and crimson hues approach like a threat of something blood-dark and ominous. The odd tension between the arena bombast of the music and the scattered polite indie-crowd applause is mirrored by the high-wire genre-balancing act that attempts to juggle the conservatism of Nashville with something more elusively (exclusively?) exotic. Think “Pretty Boy Floyd” through Pink Floyd through “Floyd the Barber”.
Sometimes, it works. Like: where Butler and Winkle’s evocative guitars (variously — and in combination — electric, lap steel, slide, acoustic) ratchet up and circle like vultures, soaring with endless patience yet never actually swooping, idly threatening to oppress Butler’s wistful-desperate vocals (on the yearning early-Stipe-alike “Magnetic Moon”, for example); or when deBorja’s sombre organ hums like a giant maddening insect behind tentative, increasingly courageous guitar licks before everything erupts and then hovers in discordant microtonal hive-mind inertia without any real resolution (“Head Above”); or especially when a chunky post punk rhythm guitar is suddenly, unexpectedly, damn near drowned by crafty, edgy chord changes releasing a bewilderingly distracted vocal howling hoarsely from within a fog of dust-devil keyboard washes (“Mansion on the Mountain”). Or even on “Sleepwalker”, where spooky upper register guitar squalls surf more rhythmically adventurous dusky beats like firefly specters dancing among the dune ridges under moonlight.
Other times, it doesn’t really rise above generic country rock (albeit the slowcore version), as pretty as songs like “Lights of Town” or “Rio Grande Rail” can be.
The best moments of Live in NYC cast engaging and occasionally compelling rust-red shadows, as close to “live rust” as they’re probably going to get at this point. A live record may have been a left-field idea for a band still struggling with its identity, but it’s a very listenable left-field idea, and if it buys time for Canyon to find some kind of discernible direction before embarking on a somewhat more (what? Solid? Corporeal? Focused?) third studio full-length, it could yet prove to have been worthwhile.