Thursday, October 25, 2018

album review: 'songs of the plains' by colter wall

I have absolutely no excuse for why I didn't cover Colter Wall's album last year. 

Even given that my schedule has been driven more through Patreon requests than anything over the past two years - still working on refining the details on how to best optimize that, hang tight for 2019 folks - Colter Wall seems like the sort of project I should have been the first talking about! A voice splitting the difference between Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, the sort of brittle, stripped down, defiantly country instrumentation and production that has the confidence to rely on minimalism because the lyrical content would hold up, and to top it off, he's from the Canadian midwest and he's only in his early 20s! Hell, most of you probably don't know this, but I grew up on the prairies, only going east for university and work, so if there's an album that would capture some of that wild resonance for me, it'd be coming from this guy.

So yeah, I screwed up major not giving Colter Wall more of a platform earlier or reviewing his self-titled album, but I'm not going to mess around this time: he's got a new project that's accruing a lot of attention, produced by Dave Cobb because of course it is and given what he's done with Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell he can still find dynamics in that bare minimalism that Colter Wall has made his own. Or to put it another way, I had high expectations that this would kick ass - was I right?

You know, it's appropriate that I'm covering this right after Greta Van Fleet, a band who tries so damn hard to capture the airs of a band long past and winds up not picking up enough of the firepower but too many of the original article's unfortunate choices. Colter Wall, on the other hand, is just as indebted to the past in his sound and has just as striking of a vocal timbre, but seems to have a much stronger grasp on texture and composition in order to set the scene. Now the question of whether Songs Of The Plains is too entrenched within the tones of the past is a more difficult one - this album has 'niche' written all over it because of how and when these songs are grounded - and I wouldn't quite say it has the individual standouts of his last project, but for what it is, it works.

And to describe this sound... well, it's a brand of barren, very acoustic country with subtle percussion, distant keening pedal steel and hints of blues through the harmonica that could feel rooted in the turn of the century - and when I say that, I'm referring to the 1900s, as these tones and song structures even outside of the covers call back to an era before country and blues were formally codified. And when you couple it with Colter Wall's thick, heavy baritone and bass, these are songs that are meant to feel old, foundational even, and I'd be remiss to not highlight how distinctly Canadian these tones feel. I do have a few issues with Dave Cobb's production, but one thing I respect is giving Wall's voice enough space to command the space but never lose the sense of how vast and empty that space can be, which if you've spent any time driving across the midwest you'll understand the feeling. And it's not precisely dusty either - we're talking about Canadian music that is comfortable embracing bare austerity, and letting just enough of a real chill creep through. And yes, this does mean the album doesn't exactly build a old-fashioned rollicking groove, but that's intentional - these are midnight campfire songs for cowboys far from home on the windswept plains, where the minimalism naturally forces attention to every fine detail, and it puts the lie to anyone saying this is a hipster playing to tones of the past, there's too much attention to subtle detail and reserve to feel less than authentic.

That said, if I do have an issue with Cobb it's tied more into the underlying compositions and delivery - great tones will get you a long way with me, but if the underlying songs don't have enough meat to them, it can make for fragments that feel undercooked. Don't get me wrong, the echoing pedal steel on 'John Beyers (Camaro Song)' is great for melodic foundation, but the song feels missing a verse or two to finish the story being told, and the traditional 'Night Herding Song' is damn near a capella - again, Wall's voice sounds great, but there's very little to it. I think when it comes to the shortest cuts 'The Trains Are Gone' probably fares the best with its harmonica, but it's a good melodic foundation that could have afforded a bit more expansion. On top of that, when this album settles into its groove, it's hard not to wonder if Colter Wall might be a shade too reserved for his own good as a singer - he does rely on a lot of subtlety and I'd never say this gets monotonous, but as the album proceeds you have to wonder if this approach embalms the songs rather than breathing into them a little more life and vigor, and if Dave Cobb eased up on the reverb, that might have helped. But on the flip side, when you have the song 'Tying Knots In The Devil's Tail' with features from Corb Lund and Blake Berglund contributing their own verses... well, it's a light way to end the album, but I can't help but be reminded of when Jason Eady ended Daylight & Dark with guest appearances from Evan Felker and Hayes Caril and it didn't quite feel tonally consistent in the same way. 

And this does take to the lyrics... and really, when four of the eleven songs are covers or traditional cuts, I don't exactly have a lot to say, beyond the fact that for as good as Colter Wall is in setting the scene with a lot of richly Canadian detail, I do wish more steps were taken to tell stories within that scene with a bit more of a narrative - of the songs Wall didn't write I'd say 'Wild Dogs' is probably the best example, outro breakdown included. Now on the one hand I'm not surprised we didn't get more story songs - Wall is deliberately calling back to an era where setting the scene was often all that was given, with maybe a call to action for the audience but little else - but on the other hand, where this album is at its best is when we get hints of more drama that's nestled into the subtext. The standoff between the prairie boy and the Toronto man looking to hustle him in 'Saskatchewan in 1881', the outlaw fable of 'Wild Bill Hickok', and especially the more modern-seeming cuts in the back half like 'Thinkin' On A Woman' from a lonely trucker and the junkie remorsefully picking up a score from a gas station drug dealer in 'Manitoba Man'. And the big reason why these songs connect most strongly is not just a sense of greater drama and emotional complexity, but also grounding older tones in modern iconography prove this is more than just a retro throwback, that beyond the aesthetic the songs still have that relevance, and if you can make that feel convincing with this style of country, there's a lot of resonant and an audience willing to get on-board.

Now as it is... I'm not sure Songs Of The Plains quite gets all the way there. Again, it's a niche listen even within country - it's austere, it's traditional damn near to a fault, it feels a little longer than it is, there isn't much momentum, and again, I'm not sure this has the gripping standouts of the last album. That said, Colter Wall is in his 20s and if he's capable of bringing this level of poise, subtlety, and texture to the table in paying tribute to history but with a unique presence, I think he's got a ton of potential, which means I'm giving this a very solid 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation. Again, if you're a non-country fan, even with Wall's excellent singing it might be out of your wheelhouse... but if he's enough to hook you, you'll probably find something to like with this, so check it out.

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