Sunday, January 26, 2014

album review: 'strong feelings' by doug paisley

So as the only country music critic on YouTube, I tend to get some flack because of my supposed lack of country 'credentials' - even though I've been listening to country for over twenty years and it's probably one of the genres of which I know most. Most often such comments take the form of, 'You're a city boy, you can't understand the appeal', with the frequent follow-up being, 'You're Canadian, you just don't get the music of the American heartland', and then it's followed by homophobic slurs I won't indulge.

But I feel it's an appropriate time to address these oh-so-enlightened individuals, speaking as a guy who grew up in Western Canada with country music: you know there's such a thing as Canadian country, right?

I'm dead serious here. Outside of Nashville and some cities in Texas, the next biggest nexus of country in North America would probably be Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which has developed its own burgeoning country music scene outside of the US. And it's a distinctive scene with its own flavour and personality that managed to avoid most of the worst trends in country music that came out of the States last year. Acts like Gord Bamford and George Canyon and Dean Brody might not be all that familiar south of the border, but thanks to the Canadian Radio & Telecommuncations Commission (which ensures Canadian content gets a certain percentage of airplay here), they've managed to build audiences out here. Better still is the fact that they've tended to stick with a decidedly Canadian sensibility, which sticks much closer to neotraditional country in comparison with the flashier, more aggressively meat-headed style that exploded in the US last year.

But today, we're not going to be talking about the Edmonton scene, but instead an alternative country act that comes Toronto - yes, my current location - named Doug Paisley (of no known relation to Brad Paisley). His last major release was in 2010 called Constant Companion, and it was pretty damn good. A country artist toeing the line between indie folk and neotraditional country, Doug Paisley stood out for his weary, emotive lyrics that a simple charm in drawing you into his melancholy, which set him above the typical 'white douche with acoustic guitar'. Like with Matt Berninger of The National, his country roots informed the songwriting - but what became interesting was his instrumentation and delivery, both which were reminiscent of the late 70s (and not outlaw country), which was not a great time for country music. It was smooth and polished, reflecting not so much downbeat depression but tired resignation that things might go downhill but he could handle it. And yet even as harsh reality lurked behind the lyrics, there were a lot of rougher flourishes hiding in the instrumentation I really liked - the organ, the piano-driven harmonies, the gentle support of Feist as a supporting vocalist. All of it came together to create a really strong singer-songwriter record that really stuck with me, so I was interested in his newest album Strong Feelings. How did it go?

Well, like Constant Companion, it's pretty damn good. I'd hesitate to call it great or an album that'll stick with me in the long term, but Strong Feelings is exactly the sort of record I'd expect from Doug Paisley, a stylistic evolution from his last album but one that hits the same beats in presentation, tone, and songwriting. There is some experimentation, but it operates off of the same sturdy foundation that makes Paisley's work so emotionally effective. 

So let's start with the instrumentation, where there have been three major changes: the organ has been swapped out for a piano on more than a few tracks (although it thankfully still pops up); the production has a decidedly rougher quality; and the guitarwork is a little quicker. In comparison with the quieter, smoother singer-songwriter material that Doug Paisley previously brought to the table, this album is a little rougher around the edges, and since it preserves instrumental texture and roughness, the sound is still beautifully organic. And while I will admit a little disappointment that the organ was swapped out, I did like the change and was impressed to find that Doug Paisley's material with a pulse actually sounds pretty damn good. That being said, there are a few production points that should have been fixed - there's some fuzz off the mic on 'What's Up Is Down' that should have been trimmed out (in fact, the more acoustic the song tends to be, the more slapdash the production, which isn't always a good thing) and it just was distracting. I'll also say that while the electric guitar moments are fine enough on this album, they do feel a little out-of-place when paired with the finger-picked acoustic melodies - maybe the tone is a little too sharp and twangy for the mix, or maybe there's not enough rougher fuzz (the surprise standout here 'To And Fro' is a great example of him doing it right), but it didn't quite click for me. Which really was a shame, I must admit, because the guitar work on this record is the second big highlight - like his American country counterpart, Doug Paisley is a great guitarist and his knack for catchy guitar lines lends this album a lot of personality.

Then we have Paisley himself, and he has improved as a performer: there's more texture in his voice, and he's still a potent emotional presence. I will say he's better in his lower register - there's a real richness there that I find really appealing, but also because his higher range just doesn't sound as natural and it doesn't mesh well with his instrumentation. Thankfully, Mary Margaret O'Hara steps up to replace Feist on this record and she and Paisley have a lot of musical chemistry. 

And none of that would matter if the songwriting wasn't here - and thankfully, it is. As much as I did like Constant Companion's emotive charm, it did have a certain clumsiness to it and the weaker songs on that album couldn't rise past that. Fortunately, that's been mostly rectified as the songwriting is a fair bit tighter and contains some really compelling tracks exploring how life moves on and how we need to learn to deal with loss and endings. For me the standouts were 'Song My Love Can Sing', which falls in the vein of the Zac Brown Band's 'Goodbye In Her Eyes', and 'Where The Light Takes You', mostly because both songs play to a maturity and a deeper sadness that Doug Paisley's quiet confidence is able to overtake. It's a tough emotional balance, but he nails it.

And yet, looking past that emotional balance, I can't help but feel this album's technical songwriting could have been a little better. Don't get me wrong, Doug Paisley is a natural at writing simply-worded and yet very nuanced and effective songs - but most of that nuance is carried on his emotional delivery, not in the songwriting. This leads to two problems. First, it means some of the lyrics can come across as pretty simplistic outside of the music, and they don't exactly reward deeper thought in the tradition of great singer-songwriters of any genre, which can lead to some songs coming across as bland. But that can mostly be overlooked - there's nothing wrong with a simple song done right - except that when viewed in context with Paisley's last album, there hasn't really been a lot of evolution on a conceptual or thematic level. Sure, the writing is sharper and the metaphors are better structured, but Paisley is returning to a very similar well as his last album for his stories. Now he's doing it well, that can't be overstated, and it's ultimately just a nitpick, but I feel Paisley could have more ambition in choosing his topics. On this album he proved he had the instrumental and emotional range to tackle more subjects, and I'm a bit disappointed he didn't go farther in this direction.

But really, if my criticism of Doug Paisley is that I wish I could hear more, that's a pretty minor issue on a pretty damn good album all the same. And while I wouldn't say I was wowed or blown away by Strong Feelings, it's definitely worth a listen.  It's not the most intellectual record - it's an album rooted in comforting emotional appeal - but that doesn't mean it's not damn good at it, and that makes it a really easy listen, even if it doesn't stick with me in the same way. With that, it's a strong 7/10 and a recommendation - and all the more ironclad evidence that country music has a home in Canada, and we'll take our brand of it any day of the week.

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