Quirky yet classic Canadiana, from the Yukon to you.
Release date: 24th June 2022
Label: Self released
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
So back again we go, to the sweeping wilds of Canada’s Yukon, in the far north west of the country, frozen to an icicle in winter and subject to heatwaves in the summer, the average temperatures oscillating between 20 and minus 30, July to January. So too hot to dance or too cold to dance? Don’t betcha life on it, as this unit, world famous in Dawson City and Whitehorse, deliver the goods as if their lives depend on it. This is their second full length album, and it is a corker.
Coming together initially in the late 20-teens, with a couple of tracks released in 2018, their M.O. is to play the music they grew up to and that their parents grew up to, and that, they too, had more than likely heard, growing up with theirs. Blue collar music, the sound of taverns and barrooms, for dancing to in the summer and drinking to the rest of the year. With a strong sense of community in this most sparsely populated of Canadian provinces, with isolation forging the bonds between the locals, they forge that especially Canadian kick of country music that could make you forget anything ever of that sort came from the country below. Six core members, handling guitars, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and banjo, most are unafraid to take a hand to vocals too. Here, they are augmented by several additional musicians, with accordion, amongst others, being added to the mix. Writing all their own material, they aim for “no frills, only honest old-time hillbilly music with a Yukon twist“. You up for that?
Kate and Dan augurs well, one of those archetypal ballads about bad deeds and derring do. Almost an updated revisit of Nebraska, the song, itself inspired by Terence Malick’s American gothic film, Badlands, this one, as indeed were possibly the earlier iterations, is based, loosely, on actual events, this time more recent and up north. Dimly remembered by the singer, the gruff-voiced JD McCallen, and embellished with some artistic license, it is a striking entry point. Guitars, flickering banjo and broad sweeps of fiddle add most the necessary texture, a reliable thrum of bass all the ballast required, the backing vocal of guest Jo Lane Dillon an attractive contrast to McCallen. I choose to review albums often on the strength of the first track alone, and this one convinced me. Broken Bow Stomp is a hoedown, with a wee touch of Waiting For The Federals about it, never, to my mind, a bad thing. It gets fiddler Kieran Poile the chance to demonstrate his sure and controlled touch, the banjo of Ryan McNally a reassuring constant. Goodbye Train has me in approval, a train song, always welcome, the vocal imbued with a whistle whoop in the near yodel of Ian Smith, the vocalist (and one of the guitarists) on this one, and allows the mandolin of Ryan James West to shine. Nuthin’ fancy, just good feel good music, timeless and with no concerns to fashion, never either much in or out.
Keno City Love Song is a song John Prine would have sold his soul for, down even to the opening lyric, which describes a dog with three legs and one eye. A stately, melancholy tale, sung, McCallen again, to picked guitar and fiddle. If you cannot be touched by this, I fear for you, a simple story of simple folk. Fifth Of You seems to reference the same characters, West now adding his harsher and more angular voice, harmony warming it out in the chorus, a drunken drinking song, throwaway but none the worse for that. Jake is another story, another ornery combatant in the rigours of an everyday life, away from any spotlight. Or, probably any illumination at all, bar the moon. The bass here is great, uncertain whether by regular player, Jeff Dinely, or guest player, Hilary Warden, propelling a slightly less lustrous song forward, the accordion of Akilena Jóhansson adding nice touches too. The fiddle is warm and glowing, the ensemble playing here also lifting it. It is entirely believable to see them all, grouped together, around a single microphone, in time-honoured bluegrass tradition. Indeed, given the album was recorded, in four days, at the Anglican Cathedral of the Diocese of Yukon, it is possible it was so.
Bones is another slight romp, rollicking away like a runaway train, the calibre of the playing may be more memorable than the tune. Like the last, Smith again on lead vocal, his timbre suiting more the more uptempo numbers. So, slower waltz, Red The Skies, sees the responsibility returning to the gravellier McCallen, accentuating the gift given a band with an enviable choice of singers. The bass is again wonderful, a resonant anchor holding the sway of this one. To rub further in that point, West takes up the reins, with a world weary drawl, for My Gal Is Good To Me, a honkytonk roustabout, flush with the sort of piano played in frontier towns, while you wait for the shoot out. I’m guessing possibly Jóhannson again.
And that’s it. Nine songs, it’s true, some stronger than others, but nothing that could possibly offend the ear, and a thoroughly decent way to spend a half hour, that perhaps being one slight concern. Sure, country records often err on the shorter side, and no-one necessarily wants locking in for a force-fed full eighty minutes, unless the material is really good and showing balance and variation, but, a couple more songs next time, guys? I’ll be waiting, hoping they might even get to play outside their home state. (Mind you, with even a six-hour drive to local gigs, I don’t hold my breath).
Here’s A Fifth Of You: