Monday, April 14, 2014

Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun

Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

Who is this mysterious Conquering Sun? What role did he/she/it have in this historic collaboration between one of the most electrifying frontmen in Canadian history and one of the greatest, hardest-working bands in Canada today? Whomever or whatever the Conquering Sun may be, it appears to have evaporated almost any sense of magic from this meeting of minds.

When the Tragically Hip singer first fronted the Sadies, it was for a CBC session—the likes of which are unlikely to ever happen again, thanks to recent cuts—where, among other things, they covered Iggy and the Stooges’ proto-punk classic “Search and Destroy.” It was a rejuvenating performance for a man whose main band only offers occasional bouts of inspiration these days, and whose solo project is purposely loose and amorphous—more often than not, wonderfully so. Fronting the Sadies for a full-length album gives Downie the opportunity to front an entirely different kind of rock band, and to fully explore the country textures that inform some of his best ballads. It’s an opportunity lost.

The best thing about the Sadies is their malleability, their ability to adapt to whomever they’re backing up; they’re as well-known for their work with Greg Keelor, Neil Young, Neko Case and Jon Spencer as they are for their own records. People want to tap into the Sadies’ energy because they obviously have something special. Too often here, they sound like a poor man’s Tragically Hip, playing different guitars—which is not a way I ever imagined I would describe the Sadies.

Three tracks on this 10-song album almost save the day. Picking up on the Stooges vibe, “It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon” is a tense and dense psychedelic punk jam; it has an energy and experimentation not heard anywhere else on the record. Conversely, “Budget Shoes” could be a classic Sadies song recast with suitably absurdist imagery from Downie; “Devil Enough” wouldn’t be out of place as a down-tempo track on a Tragically Hip album, only here it benefits from Travis Good’s mandolin and drummer Mike Belitsky’s ability to shift moods and tempos on a dime. Cling to those three tracks, fans; nothing else offered here comes close.

Downie told the Ottawa Citizen recently, “We didn’t have a ton of ideas and pretty much every idea we had we used.” On the album, he sings: “There’s no need for drama / this is one good fast job. Forget the promise, here’s what I got / you could do it in your pyjamas / this is one good fast job.” All true, with a qualifier on the word “good.” I’m not sure why a project that took four years to complete sounds so rushed and unfulfilling.

Download: “It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon,” “Budget Shoes,” “Devil Enough”

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