The Sadies – Northern Passages

A lot of albums are conceived of and maybe even recorded in someone’s parent’s basement. However, the tenth album from successful Canadian band that has collaborated with other greats like Blue Rodeo and Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip is not the likely candidate for this most adolescent of rock territories. And yet, the entirety of The Sadie’s rocking, folky, mature new album was entirely recorded in Dallas and Travis Good’s parent’s basement in Newmarket, Ontario.

Northern Passages is a return to roots, an introspective looking back from a grown up perspective. As is to expected, the old stomping grounds of their parent’s home no longer fit what the group has become and the music explodes out of those walls with ferocity.

The album starts off with the calm nostalgia of “Riverview Fog.” Dallas Good’s vocals are soft and feathery, recalling the dusty cobwebs of our memories as he sings “Long gone are the days / They’ve all passed away.” The plucky acoustic guitar and delicate cymbals recall The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” pairing up with the lyrics to create a perfectly wistful mood.

And then, just as you are settled into what you think will be a laid back trip down memory lane, the cymbals of “Riverview Fog” crescendo into the roaring guitar of “Another Season Again.” Whoa. The second and third songs on the album force you to take a double take on the album that you just assessed based on the first song. It’s jarring and sudden and a hell of a fun ride. The sound on these two songs is so different than The Sadies’ typical country territory and yet it doesn’t feel like they are trying to hard. Good’s vocals are just as at home in the harsher noise as they are in the folksy environs of the band’s more acoustic songs. The band handles the churning electric guitars of “There Are No Words” with the same dexterity and passion glimpsed in “Riverview Fog.”

The standout moments on the album are when The Sadies manage to blend their familiar country roots with the energy of another genre. The lightspeed transitions between quiet and loud, country acoustic and blistering rock come to a head in “The Elements Song,” which is situated directly in the middle, funneling all the variety of the earlier songs into one track. The song starts out with Good’s twangy vocals over subdued acoustic guitar. While this intro may recall the first song on the album, the subtly rising drums in the background hint that this will be a very different song indeed. Then the acoustic is joined by electric guitars and the song shifts into a fusion that imbibes the coolness of a cowboy strumming on the ranch with the frenetic energy of a rock show. This is a very long song at five minutes and 21 seconds and yet, the listener never gets a chance to feel bored. There are hints of banjo that merge into psychedelic rock. Distortion gives way to precise country strumming. The band shows their musical chops, keeping you engaged and alert through the minutes.

Not willing to completely abandon pure country sound, the album takes an abrupt turn towards the traditional with the fiddle and banjo filled number “God Bless the Infidels.” The beauty of this particular track is that it embraces all the characteristic parts of country in order to poke fun at one of the major themes of the genre, Christianity. The upbeat, line dance-ready melody contrasts the darkly funny lyrics like “If Jesus to the blind turned water to wine / then why can’t he come back and save us all.”

The return to country doesn’t stop there. “As Above, So Below” takes a turn to the more modern sound of country pop, with ethereal backing vocals complementing Good’s voice. The song also mirrors others on the album, drawing elements of other genres, in this case, psychedelic music. The instrumentals swirl in a heady haze, complemented by lyrics like “I don’t know my up from down” and “I should have landed long ago.” The plucky acoustic early in the track blurs into the wah-wah effect of the electric guitar later on.

Altogether, this album, with its skillful use of varied genres and insightful lyrics, embraces the basement experimentation of a bunch of teens in their first band, with the musical talents of a group that has been making music together for 20 or so years. The album is full of restless energy and calm deliberation all at once. It is hard enough to keep things fresh after ten albums, but The Sadies go beyond that, showing not only a new take on their sound but a new take on multiple genres and sounds. Like any good country album, this effort from the band tells us a story. From the opening track to the closing one, the listener gets a sense of the grown up returning home only to find that everything seems a little smaller, a little too confining for the experience and wisdom gained away from home.

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