It seems that just about every week brings us the release of another record of country-tinged folk rock. Though you might expect the majority of it to be emanating from the dingy bars of the southern US, it’s not. In fact, a good portion of it seems to be coming from the other end of the continent entirely. With an ample folk tradition to draw on — Neil Young, the Band, etc. — Canadians, and Torontonians in particular, have been producing more than their fair share of the southern-fried sound. And while a great deal of the attention has gone to solo albums by big names like Stars’ Amy Milan, the city hosts a slew of lesser-known, but equally worthy, acts like the Great Lake Swimmers, the FemBots, Jon Rae and the River and now, of course, Elliott Brood.
The band leaps into the fray with its first full-length record, Ambassador — 12 songs worth of what the three-piece likes to call “death country”. The music is a little less aggressive than that name might suggest, however. The trio only occasionally turns to distortion or electric guitars, relying for the most part on a raw mix of banjos, fiery acoustic guitars, and a healthy dose of ramshackle drum beats, with Mark Sasso’s gruff vocals growling along. These are the kind of songs that make you think of front porches, shotguns and chewing tobacco on dusty summer afternoons. And for their part, the lyrics do nothing to dissuade you from that impression — Sasso is singing here about drink and about death, about defeated southern generals and 19th century Métis rebels hanged for treason by their governments. No, Elliott Brood doesn’t for a moment downplay its folksy side — even Ambassador‘s packaging plays it up, coming complete with a wood-grain look, a fake train ticket circa 1929, and typewriter written blueprints for the liner notes.
The record opens with “Twill”, a slow, chugging ballad that eventually gives way to “President (35)”, which sets the precedent for the rest of the album. It’s all about upbeat banjo, handclaps, and a drunken sing-along chorus; it’s one of the best songs on the record. The very best, however, is “Second Son”, which uses a similar style and some devilish yelping to deliver the story of a man hanged for killing his family. It’s also Ambassador‘s highest energy cut, and on this record, the higher the energy, the better the song. This isn’t surprising for a band who first gained attention thanks to a raucous live show (complete with drummer Stephen Pitkin playing a suitcase in place of a bass drum). All the up-tempo pieces are toe-tapping, foot-stomping fun, though some of the low-tempo pieces feel like they’re dragging on a little.
Unfortunately, no matter how high the energy on the record, this is the kind of music that is meant to be seen live. It’s the music of small bars filled with sweaty bodies, cigarette smoke and bottles of cheap beer. They’ve done all they can to give the record that rough, raw feel — an atmospheric mix, with plenty of those handclaps and sing-alongs — but no matter how excellent the production job, it’s just not the same thing. And while getting drunk, cranking your stereo up to 11, and smoking cigarettes while dancing around your apartment might get you part of the way there, there will always be something missing.
It’s a small complaint, though, about what is a satisfying debut with a few outstanding tracks — “Second Son” and “President (35)” already mentioned, plus “The Bride” and “Jackson”. Just because a band is better live is no reason not to listen to a record, and this one is certainly well-worth the listen.