Folk, Country & Blues Year in Review 2005

Folk, Country & Blues Year in Review 2005
In The Reins (Overcoat)
Fans of Calexico and Iron and Wine were expecting wonderful things from this union; no one was disappointed. As the Iron and Wine EP Woman King implied earlier this year, Sam Beam's sombre folk songs are well served by fleshed-out instrumentation. Beam's apparent itch to work with a band couldn't have been soothed by a more accomplished ensemble than Calexico. The idea was conceived by Howard Greynolds, owner of Chicago's Overcoat Records and mastermind of the forthcoming Tortoise/Will Oldham team effort. "Howard had called me around the same time that Sub Pop had about putting my first record out," Beam recalls. "One of the ideas we had, instead of releasing the home recorded stuff, was for me to go into a studio and have Calexico be the backing band. That didn't really work out but we'd always hoped to do something together some day."

While Beam's musically sparse 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, brought his songs to legions of new fans, the record didn't reveal all of the prolific writer's tricks. In fact, In the Reins practically re-imagines the ill-fated Calexico/Iron and Wine session that Greynolds first envisioned. "They were significantly older songs that I had lying around that didn't make it onto the other records," Beam says of In the Reins' track listing. "Most of them were written around the same time as those on the first record. The songs existed in renditions that I'd recorded already, so we'd listen to those, then go into the studio and throw ideas around and it is what it is."

The end result is a moody EP of upbeat numbers like "A History of Lovers" and "Red Dust," and dark ones like "Prison on Route 41" and "Dead Man's Will." Complex relationships between families, friends, and lovers dot a frontier landscape wrought with tension. Beam now claims to have lost track of the songs' narrative origins but, as he sifted through tunes that might work well for the project, a theme emerged. "I knew I wanted to use the ‘He Lays in the Reins' song because I thought Calexico's signature sound would be really fun for it," he explains. "Then we had this idea of ‘in the reins,' which sort of suggests someone who is not in control of their own decisions. So we went through the songs and tried to find ones that worked with that idea in a tangential sort of way." In the end, Beam's songs were well-served by the varied musicality that Calexico brought to the proceedings. "Some of them took drastically different turns, which is really the spirit of the project, so it was a lot of fun," Beam says. "That was my hope: that they would go in directions that I didn't foresee and I think [Calexico] approached it the same way. I mean, that was a reason to play with them — because they're just so talented."
Vish Khanna

Bodies and Minds (Weewerk)
In a year chock full of shush and hush, Tony Dekker drafted a distinctly Northern niche, his ghostly voice draped over shimmering arrangements tailor-made for lakeside campfires and aurora borealis. Knowing that it would be near impossible to duplicate the jaw-dropping simplicity of the Swimmers' sparse debut, Dekker and producer Andy Magoffin managed to retain that stark essence and yet expand on it with delicately accelerated tempos and tastefully transparent colouring from the newly road-tested band. Michael Barclay

Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer (Stony Plain)
This will be remembered as the year Corb Lund blew the doors off the Canadian country music industry. Hair in My Eyes proved that an indie rocker channelling his Alberta ranching heritage can set his crosshairs on both the commercial country audience and his loyal indie following, and score a bullseye with both. Lund's ability to mythologise the Canadian West without catering to the modern Nashville production/writing aesthetic has made scores of honorary Albertans around the country. Brent Hagerman

Old Songs for the New Town (Permafrost)
Folks in the know say the best way to get the "religious experience" from Jon-Rae Fletcher and his six-piece, sometimes 16-piece, band the River is in a live setting, where you get the whole bloody, sweaty, tearful sermon and hymns. But Old Songs stands on its own legs with a delightfully agonising set of cathartic murder ballads, including the year's finest cover. The mere thought of Fletcher covering Shellac's torturous "Prayer To God" seems impractical, yet he taps into a whole new kind of turmoil when he yells, "Kill him, just fuckin' kill him!" You can smell the blood on his hands through the speakers. Cam Lindsay

5. M. WARD
Transistor Radio (Merge)
Matt Ward digs even further beneath the wall of sound to find the song inside, and the result is his sweetest — and simplest — record to date. He dispenses with some of his earlier aural experiments to embrace the AM radio past, throws his acoustic around a bit more recklessly, and pens one of the most creepily accurate depictions of insomnia ever committed to tape. This most straightforward of his records is also an homage to the ephemeral pleasure of the airwaves — and downright swoony for anyone whose first bed-mate was a radio. Helen Spitzer

Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sounds)
Okemah finds songwriter Jay Farrar with Woody Guthrie on his mind; throughout Son Volt's first album in seven years, Farrar makes several references to the folk icon. Following a mellower period for Farrar that saw him release a couple of solo acoustic-based albums, here he turns the amps up again with renewed energy and rocks out hard, right from the energetic opener "Bandages and Scars." These 13 new tracks demonstrate that Son Volt is back with a vengeance. David McPherson

Jacksonville City Nights (Lost Highway)
Sometimes it's hard to keep track of Ryan Adams. His erratic personal behaviour can result in a random melee of released material, and he may as well be in the dictionary under prolific. But his second album this year with his new band the Cardinals finds Adams at his roots-country best. Steel guitar, honky-tonk piano, strings, and hazy, rolling rhythms cosy up with some of his most accomplished and sincere vocals yet to give the album a warm, familiar glow without resorting to kitsch. In an ever-evolving Adams discography, it's nice to find an album like this with so much to hold on to. Rob Bolton

Just Married: An Album of Duets (Mint)
Canada's modern folk matriarch, Carolyn Mark is the girl everyone fights over at the saloon: traditional, sexy and extremely talented. Her third album, Just Married: An Album of Duets, melds roots, folk and country, all performed by a who's who of Canadian roots rockers. Mark relaxes and loosens up each artist, from Corb Lund to Luke Doucet, creating a soothing set of songs as warming as a first sip of whiskey on a cold night. This is an album that exhibits not only how rich Canada's folk music scene is, but also how lucky we are to have Mark at the helm. Shain Shapiro

Belladona (Anti)
For those who believe the pedal steel is one of the most beautiful noises in the universe, this album is a salve to the soul. Belladonna is an all-instrumental record built around Lanois' own love affair with the pedal steel. It also highlights the strong influence of the ambient style of Brian Eno — one that Lanois helped shape. His own ambient atmospherics have a mellow and melancholy charm that is totally seductive. Kerry Doole

The Burning Truth (Saved By Radio)
With the twin songwriting talents of Shuyler Jansen and Mark Davis reuniting after a brief separation, this third effort shows the venerable Edmonton institution at its dark and disturbing best, even when incorporating Jansen's recent fascination with digital sounds. Corb Lund is leading the Alberta country-rock revival, but Old Reliable deserve their rightful spot in the vanguard. They carry on the indomitable spirit of all the great outlaws, from Waylon Jennings to Townes Van Zandt. Jason Schneider

Best Roots Reissues

1. The Band A Musical History (Capitol)
The best rock'n'roll band ever? Possibly. The best Canadian band ever? Definitely. After several attempts to assemble a definitive package that covered their evolution from rockabilly rebels to Dylan's barnstorming posse to Americana pioneers, this six CD/DVD collection has come closest. That story is inextricably wrapped up in the personal tragedies of individual members, but it's the remarkable music that continues to inspire a new generation bent on carrying on the spirit of collective experimentation that the Band personified. "I think there's enough there," says keyboardist Garth Hudson, whose personal archive was utilised for some of the tracks. "What was most important to me was that we preserved the sense of family that we all shared growing up in Canada. The material is still good, so I wanted to emphasise that, rather than how some of us had too much fun from time to time in our personal lives." It turned out to be a labour of love for everyone involved, from executive producer Robbie Robertson, to remastering engineer Peter Moore, and liner note author Rob Bowman, who says, "Despite the many aspects of the story that you wish could have been different, what always sticks in my mind is how rich the music was. I don't know if it's a Canadian thing per se, but it's certainly something that a lot of groups, Canadian and otherwise, have learned from."

2. Bob Dylan No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Columbia)
Martin Scorsese's documentary was a revelation, and although these alternate tracks from Dylan's first golden period lack something without the visuals, it's still like browsing through Picasso's sketchbook. Endlessly fascinating.

3. Woody Guthrie / Lead Belly Folkways: The Original Vision (Smithsonian Folkways)
Simply put, these songs are where modern folk music begins. A nicely balanced collection, with impeccable sound, songs like "I Ain't Got No Home," and "In The Pines" still hit hard, even after innumerable cover versions.

4. Charlie Poole You Ain't Talkin' To Me (Columbia)
The Robert Johnson of country? Poole definitely lived on the edge during his short life, and this three-disc set is a comprehensive overview of his unjustly overlooked influence.

5. Bill Fay Group Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Durtro/Jnana)
A long-time hero of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, these previously unreleased late '70s sessions show the reclusive Fay's unique songwriting gifts in a period of transition. Hopefully, this album heralds a proper return in the near future.
Jason Schneider