Folk/Country/Blues: Year in Review 2006

Folk/Country/Blues: Year in Review 2006
Photo: Dennis Kleiman
1. Neko Case
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Mint)
Falling in love with Neko Case is easy. Just listen to that voice. Informed by a rich history of American country and folk, romantic and edgy enough to be enjoyed by traditionalists and hipsters both, it inspires a legion of fans with just the slightest exertion. But hiding below the surface has been something that is usually masked by the voice, yet still subliminally appreciated: the accompanying music. What makes Fox Confessor such an unparalleled triumph is that the music surrounding Neko Case’s formidable instrument matches it perfectly, intertwining the two into an amorphous whole. To separate them would be to ruin everything.

Of her last studio album, Blacklisted, Case remembers, "I did lots of writing on my own; I’m glad I could and I did it to prove to myself I could, but it was definitely lonely.” What better way to beat those blues than invite over all your friends? For Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the Sadies, Calexico, Jon Rauhouse, Howe Gelb and other genre masters added their special touch to Case’s distinctive voice. Of course getting the right people in the room is only half of the picture. "I wanted it to have a nice loose feel, so on this record we recorded a lot, put down all the ideas and pared it down from there. I also wanted a little more open sound on this record.” That open sound is why Fox Confessor worms its way into your head and heart. It is the sound of kismet. It is where like-minded musicians have come together and worked a magic that is grounded in a traditional country background, but also takes from bits of Americana, bluegrass, folk and whatever other genre the musicians were channelling that day. Though there was an overarching idea of what was needed, the real beauty came in harnessing that raw creativity. As the ringleader tries to explain, "There was a great deal of organisation and control freak stuff and microscopic obsession, but it’s more about corralling the looseness the way you want than getting rid of the looseness. It’s like arranging the collage of the looseness.”

It’s not just the listener that was blown away by this recording process. Case recalls, "I think definitely the most heightened moment of that time, or even of my life, was when we recorded live with Garth Hudson on ‘Margaret vs. Pauline.’ I think that was the most supernatural rock moment of all time for me. That was probably the greatest thing ever and we all felt it, you know, John [Convertino] and Joey [Burns] and Paul [Rigby] and Jon Rauhouse and I. I mean we were all like, ‘Man, that was something else.’” So say all of us, Ms. Case. Chris Whibbs

2. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
For Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley was a warm up act for cutting her songwriting teeth. Armed with the lungs of the powerful Watson sisters and a songbook inspired by her bluegrass’n’country upbringing, the flame-haired beauty finally shed those "child actor blues.” Mike Mogis and M. Ward surrounded Lewis with sublime production, allowing her idiosyncratic lyrics and mouth-watering melodies to take centre stage. Whether she’s being aided and abetted by famous indie rock pals on a faithful, spirited Traveling Wilburys cover or left so lonesome she could cry on the title track, Lewis has found a perfect niche that will hopefully keep her busy full time. Cam Lindsay

3. M. Ward
Post-War (Merge)
With its slow waltz charms, Post-War shows M. Ward’s bewitching voice and songwriting in peak form. Largely recorded in an attic in Portland, the album offers subtle instrumentation played with the meticulousness of musicians trying not to wake the neighbours. The disc followed closely on the heels of last year’s impressive Transistor Radio and shows M. Ward’s creative output as both prolific and reliably compelling. With a voice that sounds as if it’s awash in scotch whiskey and cigarettes, M. Ward sings poignant tales here with world-weary grace. Throughout its songs, Post-War presents lullaby sentiments that soothe even the most restless insomniac. Rob Nay

4. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
The Letting Go (Drag City)
Another hop and skip down the long and winding road that is Will Oldham’s capricious career, The Letting Go features complex arrangements and orchestral embellishments that act as an unusually lavish setting for Oldham’s dazzling songwriting. He recorded this latest collection in Reykjavik — a location that, along with Dawn McCarthy’s crisp backing vocals, is perhaps responsible for the disc’s chill and distant tone. This is a stylistic departure, sure, but when is a Will Oldham album anything else? But those self-same unpredictable and chameleonic tendencies are, in large part, what make his albums so consistently captivating. Rachel Sanders

5. Angela Desveaux
Wandering Eyes (Thrill Jockey)
The sudden appearance of this Montreal-via-Cape Breton native on the national scene, with an album produced by alt-country production legend Brian Paulson and a deal with an influential American indie label, was perhaps the year’s biggest surprise. But Desveaux easily lived up to the hype with this collection of honest tearjerkers, backed by some familiar faces of the Montreal underground unfamiliar with country music. Up for the challenge, Desveaux confidently led them through the process, leaning on her own solid upbringing playing bluegrass and learning from her family's Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn records. The end result has firmly put her among the ranks of Canada's leading young roots artists. <Jason Schneider

6. Amy Millan
Honey From the Tombs (Arts & Crafts)
Her contributions to Stars and Broken Social Scene have always stood out, and now this silky-voiced Canadian chanteuse broadens her wings with an excellent solo effort. Part pop, part country, the album glides effortlessly through a range of styles and tempos, sonically guided by Ian Blurton along the way. The title is apt, since the songs were written long ago, but the sound is fresh and sweet. Rich acoustic guitar work supports her lush, layered vocals on this solid debut album. By no means a sideshow to her other projects, the solo spotlight is well deserved. Rob Bolton

7. Justin Rutledge
Devil On A Bench in Stanley Park (Six Shooter)
There has been plenty of critical gushing over the work of this Toronto-based troubadour, but this superb sophomore disc merits it all. The presence of a supporting cast of Canadian roots rock royalty (Oh Susanna and most of Blue Rodeo included) doesn't hurt, but it is the poignant and haunting Rutledge voice and his imaginative lyrics that grab your attention and hold it happy hostage. He sets his vignettes in locales as diverse as Alaska, Vienna, and Vancouver, and takes you on a fascinating ride. Kerry Doole

8. Alejandro Escovedo
The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch)
Talk about a catharsis; it’s amazing how facing death injects an artist with more creativity and passion, certainly the case with this emotive rollercoaster ride. Produced by Velvet Underground alum John Cale, the introspective record celebrates the singer-songwriter’s survival. After three years of knocking on death’s door, battling with complications from a bout of hepatitis C, The Boxing Mirror traces Escovedo’s journey back to life. From the opening chill of "Arizona,” describing the locale where he collapsed on stage, to the poignant "I Died A Little Today,” the result is nothing short of breathtaking. David McPherson

9. The Sadies
In Concert Volume One (Outside)
Expectations ran enthusiastically high when Canada’s finest band announced plans to record their legendary live show. Recorded over a two-night stand at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace in February, this epic 41-song double album captures the band at their boozy, rollicking, crowd-pleasing best. Joined by a star-studded collection of friends (Blue Rodeo, Neko Case, Jon Spencer and the Band’s Garth Hudson), In Concert Volume One is a joyous showcase of the band’s formidable talents. Neil McDonald

10. Handsome Family
Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top)
There’s something both wonderfully reassuring and exceptionally disturbing about the Handsome Family. Brett Sparks’ voice always stays perfectly calm as he delivers his wife Rennie’s deeply dark lyrics, where lines about finding human skulls and remaining undetected by automatic sinks in airport washrooms. And that’s exactly what makes Last Days Of Wonder such a fascinating listen — behind every gothic tale, there are moments of realism that prevent each song from being too bizarre. Add to that the lovely harmonies and unusual instruments (bowed saws, wine glasses) and it’s hard to resist the charms of an already charming band. Michael Edwards

Five Best Roots Reissues

1. k.d. lang
Reintarnation (Sire/Rhino)
She probably has good reasons now for wanting to forget her early days in Alberta — just mention her name to any cattle rancher there — but the impact of lang’s mid-’80s recordings is still being felt in the alt-country world. Most of them remain remarkable for their sheer audacity in the face of accepted country conventions. It might have been easy to scoff at her inspired combination of kitsch and androgyny, but the voice behind "Hanky Panky” and "Pullin’ Back The Reins” was undeniably the best of her generation.

2. Gram Parsons
The Complete Reprise Sessions (Reprise/Rhino)
As alt-country’s most tragic figure, Gram Parsons’s short life has been romanticised in almost every conceivable way. These recordings are the reason why. His two solo albums made just prior to his heroin-overdose death brim with both premonitions of that event, as well as new perspectives on classic country themes from a young man musically ahead of his time. The duets with his new discovery, Emmylou Harris, remain the showstoppers of this set, but the outstanding packaging and bonus disc of outtakes and radio appearances make this the definitive statement on his final chapter.

3. Willie Nelson
The Complete Atlantic Sessions (Warner)
Largely comprising the early ‘70s albums Shotgun Willie and Phases And Stages, this set beautifully represents one of Nelson’s most fertile creative periods. Not surprisingly, it came just as he was rebelling against the Nashville establishment and accepted the offer to record in New York with the legendary Atlantic Records team of Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler. Nelson had never sounded so natural before, from the effortlessly swinging "Whiskey River,” and "Stay A Little Longer,” to Phases And Stages’ conceptual psychodrama that included "Bloody Mary Morning” and "Sister’s Coming Home.” This material was the foundation the "outlaw” ethic, and remains the touchstone for everything Nelson has done since.

4. Judee Sill
Judee Sill/Heart Food (Water)
She was the forgotten outcast of the early ‘70s California singer/songwriter movement, mainly because no one could fathom how this junkie stick-up artist possessed such otherworldly talents. These first two albums, originally among the first releases on David Geffen’s Asylum label, were virtually ignored by the rest of the industry, although Sill’s ease at combining folk with complex classical structures soon became the envy of songwriters like Warren Zevon, and later XTC’s Andy Partridge. Even Joni Mitchell’s best work can’t compare with Sill’s effortless touch, and her many Biblical references add even more layers to her music’s mysterious appeal. Sadly, these albums encompass almost all she would accomplish in her career. She succumbed to her demons in 1979.

5. Various
American Primitive Vol. II (Revenant)
Nothing else came close to matching the magic of hearing most of these previously undiscovered 78 rpm recordings for the first time. Arranged with Revenant’s typical alchemy, the songs range from the tortured gospel of Homer Quincy Smith to the tortured female prisoner Mattie May Thomas, as well as the unmatched oddness of Pigmeat Terry and Blues Birdhead. There are also some of the finest examples of Mississippi Delta blues that will force even the staunchest Robert Johnson fan to concede that there were probably many others who sold their souls to the devil. How much more of this stuff can still be out there is impossible to say, but thankfully there are people with the presence of mind to look.
Jason Schneider