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Royal City: Alone at the Microphone

David Antrobus

Royal City

Alone at the Microphone

Label: Three Gut

If I'm to use a cliche like "criminally ignored" -- and I am -- I suppose I'm going to have to justify it.

Royal City's Alone at the Microphone has been floating around out there since 2001. In their native Canada, music journalists have drizzled praise with the consistency of maple syrup all over this sophomore effort. But that's Canada, a country seemingly hermetically sealed when it comes to music, unless we're talking Nickelback or Celine Dion. Simultaneous releases in the US and UK last year appear to have done little to expose this record beyond the usual indie-schmindie ghetto. Which is a crying shame, to employ another well-worn phrase. Perhaps this review will help.

Not that Royal City themselves, despite initial appearances, dabble in the hackneyed. Their debut, At Rush Hour the Cars, was largely lo-fi bedroom folk, well received yet tentative in its countrified acoustic fragility. Like Jason Molina (Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co.), however, singer/songwriter Aaron Riches has steadily expanded on that pretty but somewhat limited and limiting template, adding instrumentation (banjos, steel drums, maracas!) and reveling in the freedom of revolving band members. We're still talking country/folk rock, but what a shiveringly strange breed, an unsettling genetic offshoot from the genus we call Americana.

Which reminds me: I'm not sure whether Greil Marcus intended his description of "old, weird America" -- as applied to that fugitive blending of African and European music, the fusing of the sacred and the profane -- to also refer to Canadian music. But since the term "American" seems to have been appropriated by everyone south of the 49th parallel and north of the Rio Grande, it's important to note that Canada is indeed legitimately "America" too, and therefore eminently capable of enriching the Americana tradition. Just ask Royal City's spiritual predecessor Neil Young. Oh, um, yeah, and the Band.

All told, this is some sombre, haunted, and downright surreal folk music.

Opener "Bad Luck" sounds pursued -- ragged and breathless as gained-on prey. A repetitive and strangely beautiful guitar riff shadows every line of Riches' creaky voice like a leering doppelganger, all on a bed of steel drums, demented maracas and crisply strummed acoustic guitar, while an increasingly confident banjo and frail banshee wails seep, chilling as dark blood, from between the notes right after the chorus fades. Bad luck, the "terrible laughing god" appears relentless "under a blackened sky". This last image, incidentally, recalls the only other contemporary touchpoint I can readily summon, the idiosyncratic neo-gothic folk of Nina Nastasia. This creepy curtain raiser is followed by something even more traditional-sounding, but there is no let-up. Like waking and finding yourself cast in some rural horror-legend, "Under a Hollow Tree" is no less disturbing than its predecessor, the breezy banjo licks -- like the hopeful love made under the hollow tree -- only barely disguising a rotten heart of "foul fiends... in the stony rubbish, so far beneath".

Many of the songs feature this dichotomy between abject foulness and sublime grace, between the abhorrent and the alluring, and, yes, those previously-mentioned familiars, the sacred and the profane. "Dank is the Air of Death and Loathing" epitomises this. The smoothest, most relaxed groove on the album, it nevertheless features demonic creatures, shit and vomiting, like some latter-day take on The Exorcist. And yet it also offers love, connection, attachment in opposition: "Ray of light, a petal in my room / I will not go forth without you", which in context is as inexplicably beautiful as the pseudo-Native American "I don't know why-I-I" keening laments. They seem to come from somewhere ancient and good, like last-minute rescues. In fact, this precious isolation of the profoundly positive and heartfelt from such awful bleakness is the album's ultimate strength. The sheer volume of references to blood, shit, dirt, demons, death, vomit and jism ("There's blood on the floor, pork chops on the stove / Come all over the bathroom door" - from the otherwise fairly standard barn-burning thigh-slapper "Daisies"; not to mention an actual song entitled "Blood and Faeces") might well become oppressive if it weren't for that faint, vigilant sense of perverse tenderness in the face of all the world's horrors.

This works both ways. "My Brother is the Meatman", for instance, opens with the most plaintive harmonica and gentle slide guitar, a '70s Neil Young country lilt, and yet with words like "There's kerosene on the bed / A laughing goat under head" and "...I licked your bark with my bloody tongue", this particular swaying hammock turns out to be crawling with roaches and menace, littered with hidden slivers of broken glass.

Neil Young may be an obvious comparison throughout, but compatriot Leonard Cohen also haunts this record, along with their similarly tireless contemporary Lou Reed, neither more overtly than on "Don't You", an elegiac plea for steadfastness to some unknown (friend? lover?), rich in background drone and picked electric guitar, Riches' voice all rusty and sequestered and uttering prayer-like interrogatives that could summarize the entire album: "Dung in ditches, and illness in muddy places / After this, what forgiveness?"

Individual songs aside (and I haven't even mentioned the astounding "Rum Tobacco", which drags itself brokenly and noisily down similar dusty byways as those "C" bands: Calla, Calexico, and Califone), this is a passionate and unnerving exploration of a twisted, lost America. It may indeed emanate from the frozen north, but not since Deliverance have banjos sounded so unspeakably baleful and yet -- strangely -- ultimately exultant. But, hey, I've praised it enough. Just go and find it, if you can, and help this fine band sell some more records.

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