In this first installation of reviews of the shortlisted 2010 Polaris Prize albums, I’m going to be looking at Darker Circles by The Sadies. The Polaris Prize is a Canadian music prize picked on a basis of artistic merit alone, and not commercial success. As a result, the long list tends to turn out some of the best music you may have never heard of before. But this year the short list, as well as shining a little spotlight on some promising newcomers, reflects the work of a few veterans.
The Sadies are Mike Belitsky, Sean Dean, and brothers Dallas and Travis Good. The history of The Sadies reads like the stuff of a country music legend. The brothers Good were named after Dallas Frazier and Merle Travis and born to Good Brothers’ Bruce Good. They grew up with instruments all around them, and Travis would spend his first 2 years out of highschool playing with his father and uncles. Meanwhile, across the country in Halifax, a 16 year old Mike “the Snake” Belitsky had bought his first drum kit (a 1964 Ludwig Ringo Starr kit) and had taken to sleeping with his head in it. Later, when he moved to Toronto, he would learn under Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem, a band that The Sadies would later work with.
Blue Rodeo is just one of the big names that has been associated with The Sadies. The band would go on to collaborate with Neko Case, Andre Williams, John Langford, and John Doe– producing albums with each. Right from the very beginning the group received accolades from Gordon Lightfoot, who they would go on to cover as part of indie supergroup The Unintended (a name which comes from Lightfoot’s “Go-Go Around”).
Their last solo work New Seasons was longlisted for the Polaris Prize in 2008. This was their first nomination after having released 6 solo albums (as well as 3 collaborations with other artists, and 1 concert album) prior. Now, 12 years after their first release, they’ve finally made it into the shortlist with their latest recording Darker Circes.
The are 2 questions that we need to answer when we look at an album. The first one is what does the album sound like?
The lyrical content, an important part of what an album sounds like, is right in front of you on this one and well captured in the album name Darker Circles. The lyrics tell stories about growing older, losing sensation to feeling, giving up, “turning to oblivion night after night”, and “postcards that nobody reads”. “Idle Tomorrows” talks about wasting time paining over what could’ve been, and “Choosing To Fly” tells a story about a man and a woman who split, and then kill themselves. The story of “Violet and Jeffrey Lee” is one last tragic tale before an instrumental reprise of each of the 10 songs earlier, signalling the end of the album’s slow descent into a spaghetti western scored hell.
The band’s sound of country western, psychedelia, danger, and loneliness might be missing the great drama of a spaghetti western theme, but that said- The Sadies embody the outlaw side of country more, and the Billy Ray Cyrus side less.
The second question we have to ask ourselves when listening to an album is a harder one. Is this album good? And in this case, when we’re looking at the best album released in Canada for the whole year, is this album great?
The album is good, a statement that I finally feel comfortable making after listening to Darker Circles 40 odd times- absorbing the album while I rode the subway, spent time alone in my apartment, slept, and even once during a heated make out session (a strange choice I will admit). This is the longest listening time I’ve ever given one album while reviewing it, and somehow I still feel like I’m missing something – like there are secrets still waiting to ooze out of it, because the first 20 or so odd listens I can tell that I like the album, but don’t really know why.
The first and most obvious reason why this album is good is that it does capture well the feeling of seeing the band live, which having had the pleasure of seeing The Sadies play live on Canada’s Day, I feel is one of the band’s stronger attributes. The second reason I can see without digging too hard is that I just dig the sound. I really like this new new country music that this country is breeding, which isn’t fashionable or popular in the MidWestern US demographic, but it’s dirty, and it’s raw, and it’s still unpopular even though its has nothing in common with Shania Twain except the genre. Is this latest work by The Sadies going to convert people to the genre that have no interest in country music? Well, this album is less twangy than the last and the surfy grooves might bring in some classic rock fans- but the Daft Punk of country they’re not.
That brings us to the second stumbling block, which is that this album isn’t really that much better than New Seasons which was released 2 years ago, and only long-listed for the prize. Both the previously nominated album, and the currently nominated one were produced by Jayhawk’s Gary Louris and they sound similar, and even compliment each other. True to its name, this album is darker and less folky than the last- although the lyrics in New Seasons aren’t exactly cheery. Whether you like this album or the last more is almost arbitrary though, because it’s mostly rooted in small changes in musical taste than in large changes- this one is a bit more streamlined than the last and a bit last twangy. But where there have been improvements is in the storytelling and the lyrics on the new album. It’s the same heartache, but I find myself listening and relating to the lyrics more on Darker Circles than on the album that came before where I find myself listening to the sound.
I think that if The Sadies came out with another album that had a darker sound, but still maintained much of that folky psychedelic twanginess, it would be a great album. Darker Circles is good, especially if you compare it to what some of their contemporaries are doing, but this band needs to do something epic. Maybe a concept album using their particular brand of musical expression to put into song a zeitgeist that we haven’t yet acknowledged, but we’ll see as part of ourselves once they sing it. That would make for a great album.
© Natascha Malta, Music Vice