Canadian country rockers, The Sadies, have seen a prolific and fruitful career, not only releasing their own material, but also supporting some of the biggest players in American folk and country music, including Neil Young, John Doe and Andre Williams. Since their inception, the Toronto-based four-piece, fronted by brothers Dallas and Travis Good, have collaborated with big names in the Canadian rock and country scenes, such as Gord Downie, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Blue Rodeo, as well as a host of other artists, ranging from Robyn Hitchcock to Jon Langford. Much of The Sadies’ own music has seemingly been shaped by many of the other musicians under whom they have worked and, whilst their sound is largely rooted in an alternative country paradigm, the band draw influences from many styles within rock music, most notably psychedelic and surf rock. As a result, the band have certainly made a name for themselves, but a significant number of the many projects on which they have worked have fallen under the collective radars of much of the music world outside of The Sadies’ own circles. Nevertheless, the band’s most definitive works, in particular their 2004 album Favourite Colours, have justly received the recognition they deserve, which has put them on the map for those seeking some alternative country with a few fresh ideas being introduced. The outfit’s 10th album, Northern Passages, comes following the longest period of studio silence the band have yet seen, with their last non-collaborative effort, Internal Sounds, having been released in 2013. Nonetheless, Northern Passages has received a warm welcome from the music community, and for good reason. On the surface, this is a solid 34-minute rock and country record, but with a bit of patience, this album reveals a lot more than just this.
Riverview Fog introduces the record with a fitting air of mystery, given the murky feeling evoked in the song’s title. The gentle acoustic melodies ring in a haze of breezy production, with Dallas Good’s dreamy vocals aptly reflecting the lyrical subjects of sleep, April rain, blue fog and a palette of vibrant colours. The lyrics reminisce, in the form of a letter, about a friend of the band, Rick White, who played alongside Dallas in the lo-fi psychedelic band Elevator, and who formed a Canadian indie rock supergroup, called The Unintended, with The Sadies’ entire line-up. Given that Elevator are now disbanded, having not released any new music in a decade, and The Unintended are presumably defunct, given their over a decade’s worth of inactivity, it seems that Riverview Fog is a call for Dallas and Rick to meet up again, with Dallas expressing concern for his friend, whilst also respecting his introverted nature, vowing to simply check in on him every month or two. Given the lyrical content, the wispy essence of the production on this track induces feelings of memories from long ago being preserved in a reminiscent man’s thoughts, and the result is an incredibly beautiful song with an odd air of familiarity to it. Indeed, even upon my first listen of this song, I felt like I had heard it before; not because it sounded old or stale, but because many of the melodies are so striking as to convey a natural appeal that reflects the intimacy between Dallas and Rick exhibited in the song’s subject matter. As a steady drumbeat is introduced towards the very end of the cut, it’s as if things are finally starting to take shape, but only as Dallas acknowledges that, “Long gone are the days / They’ve all passed away”. Ultimately, Riverview Fog is a compelling opener for Northern Passages, with the airy Americana vibe retaining a mesmerising melancholia that displays a sense of reminiscence, longing and loss.
The second track, Another Season Again, instantly shifts the direction of Northern Passages, with a rough garage rock tune that blasts by in just over two minutes. The main melody comes in the form of a pure rock and roll riff, but there’s a notable foundation in alt-country provided by the duelling, folky vocals. Whilst a very good song, I feel that the rough production on Another Season Again is noticeably overblown. A cut like this could certainly benefit from a lo-fi mix, as to really bring out the raw energy in The Sadies’ performance, but unfortunately, the result isn’t entirely successful, with the vocals being buried under the instrumentation at times. However, during the purely instrumental passages, I can certainly see why this approach was used, as the solo section brings quite the bite to the rock jam that could be blaring from a neighbour’s garage. There Are No Words continues the bare-faced rock aesthetic of the last track, but with some better production and a slight blues-tinge. The mixing on this track is still rather muddy, but this works to the song’s benefit this time around, particularly at the time of the fuzzy guitar solo, which is as gritty as anyone could possibly want from a garage rock track. The backend of There Are No Words takes a sudden country detour, as if The Sadies suddenly remembered they’re an alt-country outfit, complete with twangy guitars, a bright acoustic and some eerie lap steel embellishments. This is certainly fitting, however, as it seemingly marks the point at which the album transitions back to a predominantly country-orientated sound from the slight rock excursion taken on the last two tracks. The next track, It’s Easy (Like Walking), features a guest vocal performance from indie rocker Kurt Vile, and the song stands out as a result. The slightly nasal quality to Vile’s voice, as well as the charming lyrics about the natural affinity he feels with playing the guitar, mean that this track reeks of a bare-faced alt-country sound. If there’s one issue with this cut, it’s that Vile’s vocals are so suited to The Sadies’ sound that he arguably outperforms Dallas Good’s vocal deliveries on the rest of the record, but this song at least catches the listener’s attention as a result. One of the other most memorable cuts in the tracklisting is God Bless the Infidels, courtesy of its rootsy country vibe, making use of a fluttering fiddle, a lead lap steel melody and typical, twangy vocal harmonies. This song is certainly a solid bit of pure country worship that is highly reminiscent of The Byrds, but it’s probably best that it was just featured on one track, as it retains a slight novelty to it. Ultimately, Northern Passages reveals a sound that transcends just a standard country rock hue. The album takes some slight, but no less significant, stylistic detours, whilst remaining firmly rooted in an American folk and country paradigm.
Given the hints of stylistic diversity that are played with on Northern Passages, The Sadies maintain a confident composure throughout the record’s runtime. There is certainly the odd hitch throughout the duration of this album, such as the occasionally wanting production or Dallas Good’s vocals being a bit plain at times, but it nevertheless ranks amongst the group’s better works. Despite a somewhat short runtime, the band cover a significant amount of ground within their country rock paradigm during that time, inducing many a memorable moment that continues to set The Sadies apart from much of their competition, and will have fans of alt-country music returning to this album regularly. Indeed, Northern Passages is more than just another addition to the band’s extensive back-catalogue, rather it’s a welcomed revamp of their pre-established sound.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10