Indie rock's all-star backing band follows up last year's stellar live album with an effort which I must, regretfully, label alt-country.
Whatever street cred the Sadies currently have is partly due to the liner note inclusion from some of indie rock's more venerable acts. Case in point: when Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray were set to record their second album as Heavy Trash, they enlisted the help of the the Sadies in the studio, which yielded a successful result of rockabilly-tinged blues rock. Honorary Canadian Neko Case is also a frequent collaborator with the group, penning and performing songs with the Sadies on her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Perhaps showboating some of these forged relationships was last year's live effort from the Sadies, In Concert, Volume One, a double disc of Sadies songs with guest appearances from a slew of all-star performers with easily recognizable, charismatic vocals. The album highlighted the breadth of the band's talents as songwriters and performers.
The group's prowess is undeniable. Spanning traditional genres such as bluegrass, country, blues, and psych-pop, the group (which consists of brotherly duo Dallas and Travis Good on guitar and vocals, with Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky on bass and drums) consistently displays top-notch musicianship. The Sadies' most pressing hurdle, however, seems to be their attempt to define themselves as something more than just a backing band for gigging with some of the top names in today's indie crowd. New Seasons creates some dents in this "backing band" perception partly by focusing on more lyrically-driven ballads, instead of the excessive instrumental pieces seen on their previous efforts.
The Sadies come closest to shedding the "backing band" label with tracks like the introspective gospel song "The Trail", and the traditional country tune "Anna Leigh". The latter is a harmony-laden, anecdotal ballad in which the song's narrator describes a vision-riddled ex-lover and her pleas about a forthcoming disaster. The song appropriately concludes with a triumphant verse and a harmony of "Da Da Da"s, showing the Sadies at their most folk-oriented. The introspective gospel tune "The Trial" invokes some religious inclinations and sounds as if it could have came from the deep South instead of the frigid North. The finger-picking ballad "Yours to Discover" includes some catchy harmonies and Gary Louris of Jayhawks chipping in on guitar. And perhaps the most southern-twine-inspired track is the sentimental tear-jerker "Sunset to Dawn".
Unfortunately, though, the most well-written and well-executed songs on New Seasons pale in comparison to some of the previous work by this talented group of musicians. In Concert, Volume One exhibited a spontaneous energy that's lacking on the band's current album. Their efforts on Way Out With Heavy Trash exuded a certain amount of rock and roll über-moxie, as was accentuated by Jon Spencer. It seems that without a charismatic frontman or unique vocal presence, the Sadies can sometimes dwell in an area of country mediocrity. "The Land Between" gets kind of repetitive with its uninspiring chorus of "Ooooh, we've become so tangled". "The First Inquisition (Part 4)" sees the Goods' vocals at their most prominent -- but this may be due to the distortion used on the track. "My Heart of Wood" trudges along, without a significant hook or lyric to keep the listener interested.
I generally believe that the label of alt-country is something one lives down to rather than reaches for. The name implies to me a crossroads of some of the most staid aspects of two genres, giving the term a negative connotation which is almost akin to an insult. So it is with trepidation that I claim that New Seasons contains elements of an alt-country album. Maybe it is the fact that I am inclined to believe the band has the potential to create something which far exceeds this effort. Let's hope this extremely talented bunch takes some chances on the more traditional styles -- of which we know they excel -- expanding and improving on existing formulas, instead of rehashing them.