Friday, December 9, 2016

album review: 'dear life' by high valley

So it's been a while since I've talked about Canadian country music - which yes, is a thing and I'm still a little bewildered why people act so surprised when I mention that. Folks, we have open plains, the Boots N' Hearts festival and the Calgary stampede - it might be a very regional thing up here, but we do have a big market for country music.

But just like the rest of Canadian music, Canadian country is a little different. It's probably best to see it as a similar ecosystem to Texas country in comparison with Nashville - we might import a fair bit, but there are some unique traditions and sounds that we've cultivated up here. For one, there's more of a balance, as Canadian country didn't just embrace bro-country outside of a few artists. We kept something of our neotraditional scene alive, the country rock scene flourishes about as much as the rest of rock in Canada - in other words, better than you'd expect - and of course we've got our own indie country material. Hell, I reviewed Lucette back in 2014, and her last album was a prime example of that sort of folk-touched sound that we also saw with the excellent case/lang/veirs project this year - in comparison with more American folk it's a little more atmospheric and spacious and rough-edged.

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, and that takes us to High Valley, a duo of brothers from Blumenort, Alberta, and I've actually talked about them before when I discussed their breakout single 'Make You Mine' in my roundup of the Canadian Hot 100 last year. Now they've actually been active since the late 2000s on independent labels, but the success of that single - featuring Ricky Skaggs and which has been tacked onto the American release of this album, which I'll be covering - was enough to land them on Atlantic, with the majority of the songs cowritten by the duo themselves. And look, it's hard not to see labels preparing to pitch them as an earthier, less-polished version of Florida Georgia Line, but I had hope these guys could clean up with some great harmonies to boot, especially given how good 'Make You Mine' is. So was I right?

Okay folks, I have to be brutally honest here: there are times when my critical faculties get a little short-circuited and I end up falling back on instinctual reactions. And when I listening to this High Valley record, the rational part of my mind was telling me how much it sounds like Mumford & Sons hooked up with Florida Georgia Line and occasionally decided they wanted to cover Brooks & Dunn... but every other part of me had an absolute blast listening to this record. Let me stress this that Dear Life is not a particularly deep or intelligent record, but it is a riotous blast of high octane, bluegrass and folk-inspired country that is too damn catchy and earnest for me to care all that much. In other words, this is everything Florida Georgia Line should have ever tried to be: it was never going to be all that smart, but if you kept the momentum and melodic grooves strong, you will hook an audience. Maybe not for long - I can't exactly say how much replay value a record this simple and relentless will have - but it does everything it needs to do, and it does it really well.

And the amazing thing is, again, the 'formula' that High Valley bring to the table isn't complicated, at least on the surface, especially when you consider how much is otherwise cribbed from Nashville's playbook in terms of modern country. Joey Moi might not have produced this record, but his hallmarks are all over this record in the big rolling grooves blending choppy acoustic strums and slightly heavier percussion that keeps up the tempo against the tightly arranged harmonies. And this is where you can tell High Valley were taking notes from what worked from Florida Georgia Line in order to refine the sound: melodies that trended towards warmer tones and major chords, a real bassline to define the groove, and more organic percussion. Now let me stress that it's not always perfect in this regard - they try to slip a more manufactured beat into 'I Ain't Changing', a track that along with the big strings section on 'Memory Makin' and the handclaps on 'Young Forever' and 'She's With Me' feel a tad too slick for their own good - but for the most part, it's a formula that pulls out some shockingly impressive dividends in terms of tightly written modern country folk songs. The layered acoustic rollick of the title track against the expansive melodic background, the rootsy country stomper of 'Roads We've Never Taken' that's borderline bluegrass with the fastpicked banjos, the seething lower tones on 'I Be U Be', the choppy electric strums that color the slicker effects around 'Soldier' that I ended up liking for many of the same reasons I like 'Tomorrow Never Comes' by the Zac Brown Band, and then that huge hook of 'Young Forever'...

See, I think that's one of the most welcome surprises of this record: how damn strong the hooks are. For a record that's all about momentum and tempo - and make no mistake, the fact that this record goes down as fast as it does is huge - the fact that High Valley still managed to assemble huge hooks and lyrical patterns that manage to stick in the brain is incredibly important, and shows a real focus on technical songwriting, especially when you consider how conventionally melodic this record is. Think about the title track, how the hook manages to pick up that careening feeling of life surging out of control and how yet how it always manages to resolve that tension, or how 'Roads We've Never Taken' plays with traditional country melodies that call back to Johnny Cash, or that faster lyrical cadence on the verses of 'Young Forever' that never lets the momentum falter into the huge hook. Even the songs that use more minor chords like 'I Be U Be' and 'Soldier' know how to tilt from darker verses into hooks that can resolve that tension, mostly thanks to some expertly arranged vocal harmonies. And look, I shouldn't even have to tell you why 'Make You Mine' is awesome, it was a damn great song when it was first released in 2014, it still is here! And I really can't undersell how much of an asset that Brad and Curtis Rempel don't just have chemistry but distinctive vocal tones that are nearly given equal time, and that they're selling these songs with complete, bald-faced sincerity. Now all of that earnest belting and high tempos does mean this record can be a bit of an exhausting listen - even if I do feel the slower moments are the weakest ones on the record, this album does leave you feeling a little breathless at the end.

Of course, this takes us to the content - and really, does anyone give a damn about what these guys are actually saying when they deliver it with so much energy and charisma? Yes, I know that's not really an excuse - even though I can tick off a whole lot of artists today, especially in hip-hop, who use it - but to be fair, while High Valley aren't writing deep songs, the lyrics and content only become an issue when they seriously stumble. Take the opener, 'She's With Me', where it's clear they're over the moon that this girl who is out of their league is with them, but women just don't 'happen to you', guys, that was not a smart turn of phrase. Then there's 'Don't Stop', which had the pseudo-inspirational message of... not stopping, whatever you do. Then there's 'Soldier'... look, I like the song and I know they didn't write it, but all that talk about the red, white and blue on the hook and being this girl's soldier is a little ridiculous when you know they're Canadian. But for the most part, the lyrics aren't so much bad as they are thin - they're young, wild, in love and riding out the waves of success while trying to maintain who they are. Sure, it's all kind of on-the-nose - a little too much so on 'I Ain't Changin', which stops just short of rural pride pandering but gets close - but again, these are songs that have a single-minded focus and purpose, and they work for what they are.

So look, you won't catch me saying that this is a smart or insightful or deep record, because it's not. But for what it's trying to do, it doesn't need to be - it's a country stomper in the vein of a solid Brooks & Dunn album, cribbing the best elements of groove and tempo from modern folk to make a more grounded and organic record that still will fit snugly into the Nashville sound. Is it straightfacedly corny and earnest to a fault? Of course, but that's a feature more than a flaw, and it does wonders to heighten the emotions of these sorts of big, heart-on-your-sleeves love songs. In short, I enjoyed the hell out of this record, it's getting a very light 8/10 from me, and a hearty recommendation. Again, it might be as simple as your average bro-country record, but it avoids the worst tropes of that genre and it's got the tempo, grooves, flow, and earnest power so much of that genre was terrified to really embrace. In other words, if High Valley is Canadian country's big foot into the modern mainstream, it couldn't come at a better time, and I'm happy it's here

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