Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cuff The Duke: Sidelines of the City

Something I say a lot is that the best Country music is often made by artists not found in the Country section, ones that owe no debt to the genre's conventions and have no desire to appeal to that genre's main followers. They're more interested in the feelings invoked by classic country: of loss, distance, the passage of time, vulnerability, and fiddles and steel guitar all over.

On the ominous opening track, it's clear that Cuff the Duke have the interest but not the allegiance. The fiddle squeals like a warning sign while the guitars kick up behind it and Wayne Petti comes in like Tokyo Police Club doing a Johnny Cash tribute, laden with weariness and resignation. That combination of the unconventional and the traditional makes for some of the album's best moments. Take "Failure To Some," with its gorgeous chorus, expressing a rather nuanced worldview, and its lengthy psychedelic wailing guitar coda letting you ruminate for four minutes or so.

There's a lot of contemplation, and a lot of melancholy on this album. It's baked into the band's sound, but they really explore it with their songwriting, on tunes such as "Remember the Good Times," "The Ballad of the Tired Old Man," "Rossland Square" which deal in their ways with time, change, and loss. The first is reluctantly celebratory, in its Byrdsy way. "The Ballad of the Tired Old Man" is an anti-war parable, "Rossland Square" is a light jab at urban development and the way our hometowns alter themselves if we're gone too long: it's an ode to Oshawa, which is on the other side of Toronto from me. (Great lyric courtesy of their tourism board: "Prepare to be amazed / That's the slogan of the city where I was raised.") This album is not made of pick-me-ups. Highlights include the crystalline, haunting "When All Else Fails And Fades" and the intimate "Confessions From a Parkdale Basement." My personal favourite song here is the barnstorming "By Winter's End." Let also let their character show with moments of quirk like "Surging Revival" and "Long Road."

And yet despite its bleak imagery and tone, I don't consider this album to be a bummer. It's refreshing, because it's a big, rustic production that never feels like it's kidding you. It's honest and sincere, eyeball-to-eyeball with the listener, laying out all these fears and doubts and wrapping them up in great sounds, confessional but not without sweetener. I don't know how much of the sentiment expressed is "authentic" or "real," but it succeeds in stirring something up in me and attaching it to some damn fine music. Sometimes it's one or the other, but in the best cases, it can be both.

Buy This Album Now: iTunes Canada // Amazon.ca // Amazon.com

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