The boundless creativity displayed on Blue Rodeo's second album, 1989's Diamond Mine,
made it clear that the group, which had previously drawn comparisons to The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, The Band and Gram Parsons, was not only a musical force for the long haul but had the range, the songs and the voices to live up to those heavy hitters. The jazzy interludes between songs, the fierce politics and ragged, two-part harmonies, the easy tendency towards classic country ballads and shameless emotionalism, as well as the Doors-influenced, psychedelic, eight-minute title track, all mapped out limitless paths for the group.
Blue Rodeo's six subsequent studio records took in back-porch Americana (as served up by a bunch of Canadians, just like forefathers The Band), searing electrical rockers, and dub-psychedelic country, and built a compelling tension between the visions of the band's co-lead singers, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. Seen from another angle, Blue Rodeo's journey, once so broad and full of possibility, looked like a long arc of retrenchment, from experimentation and spacey jams to sharp, precise songcraft and records that went pop!
In short, the group seemed to be approaching a place of AOR comfort, a worrying sign for those hoping for future musical miracles. That the group's latest album, Palace of Gold,
is augmented with horn and string sections (credit the group's recent fascination with the history of the Stax-Volt soul label and the Memphis sound of the 1960s) that add depth and drama to some cutting rock 'n' roll, country balladry and joyous pop noise is a bit of a surprise. That the record, uniformly full, crisp, complex and inviting, is the band's best in seven years is a delight.
Lead single "Bulletproof" is the latest evidence that nobody writes heartbroken ballads like Jim Cuddy. In a spacious mix, to the swell of the Bushwhack Horns, with rich guitars chiming along, Cuddy pleads, "We're so scared of the silence/ And the tricks that we use/ We're careful and we're cunning but we're easily bruised/ I don't want to lie about it/ I'm not bulletproof." Though his soaring, pure voice should, as I've suggested before, be labeled a Canadian national treasure, Cuddy's ability to deconstruct the relationships between people, ground them with a firm sense of place and run them through an inexhaustible series of dynamic melodies defines him as a songwriter. It's so easy to find a part of your life in one of his songs that unless you step back and wonder at them, it's a gift you can take for granted. This stuff is much more difficult than it appears.
I had some initial struggles with writing about Palace of Gold,
mainly as a result of familiarity. I'd seen Blue Rodeo Glenn Milchem on drums, providing great support and fills for everything from the mandolin-led folk-rock of "Homeward Bound Angel" to the inverted Grand Ole Opry ballad "Stage Door"; Bazil Donovan on bass; former Wilco cohort Bob Egan on mandolin and pedal steel; and James Gray on keys live around 20 times. With an instinctive understanding of the language their music speaks, I had to step back and realize what it was that I loved so much about them. The obvious never is.
After "Bulletproof" comes Keelor's cosmic drone "Comet," featuring Donovan's thick bass against an epic collision of string and guitar textures. It pulses along like a star moving across the sky, until the strings and horns build to a maelstrom of sound, Keelor intoning "There is a comet floating through this endless night/ Embraced with perfect symmetry/ Through the teardrop of infinity." It's a drug song, a space-out, and it feels just like you're walking home at 3 a.m. drunk, stoned and cold, and in love with it all.
As a counterpoint to Cuddy's populism, Keelor, even when writing about romance or the longing for it, has always been concerned with ordering himself within the universe. That theme recurs repeatedly, most beautifully on "Glad to Be Alive," a rich ballad with a hypnotic keyboard riff through the chorus, twisting into a solo. Keelor's worn voice stays just the right side of trite as he sings, "A still winter's night with Christmas stars shining so bright/ And the wind knew her song so he cried and sang along/ Glad to be alive."
"Cause for Sympathy" is the most successful integration of the wide-open Blue Rodeo sound with the retro-soul they've recently embraced. It's way up-tempo, exploding out of the gate with shrill strings and horns and picking up momentum from there. Keelor and Cuddy's voices meld perfectly on a call-and-response chorus: "What did you do/ I poured my heart out till my words filled the room/ How could you know/ She smiled and looked at me and said it's all just a little too soon." And when things finally fall apart, there's nothing but release and joy, like in all the best soul shouters: "Now I wait and see how it all turns out for me/ It's not as painful as they tell you/ Some success in every failure/ Now I know I can handle the pain/ I'll stand here waiting, hope it all happens again."
Nearly everything on Palace of Gold
works. "Walk Like You Don't Mind" is a hyper-charged rock 'n' roll number, Cuddy's every hard-bitten word punctuated by the horn section. Keelor's "Homeward Bound Angel" begins like a meandering folk-rocker until the coda, where his repeated lung-shredding cry of "I'm gonna' go a-wandering" transforms a good song into a great one. More than anything, this record feels fresh, a welcome combination of craftsmanship and spontaneity and the happy result of what one band member termed (to paraphrase) the need to try something we weren't sure we could pull off. The horn and string sections may not stick around for the next album, but if the band stays true to that mantra, whatever they come back with will also be worth hearing.
(Palace of Gold
can be purchased directly from www.bluerodeo.com