Canyon
Empty Rooms
Gern Blandsten / Wichita
2003
B-



although I would never profess to be a connoisseur of the genre, it often strikes me there is little that is truly “alternative” about most so-called alt-country music (just as there is little that is truly “alternative” about most so-called alt-rock). I can only take so much mumbled introspection and confessional self-loathing set to the minimalist scrapings of a guitar. And this engagement with the most bland of the alternative, perhaps, makes Canyon sound sufficiently fresh and distinctive.


It would be misleading, though, to suggest that Canyon are conducting their experiments with Americana in splendid isolation, even if they are at some remove musically from their Dischord-obsessed Washington DC contemporaries; judging by second LP Empty Rooms, they have definite affinities with the likes of My Morning Jacket and their Wichita label-mates Bright Eyes. Nevertheless, faced with the relative novelty of Canyon’s sound, this listener was left scrabbling around, desperately seeking and throwing out comparisons in the hope that one or two might stick. So imagine – if you will – if Calla, inspired by the expansive and lush folk of Beck’s last offering Sea Change, swapped their adopted hometown of New York for the dusty plains of the American Midwest. With any luck, you’ve limped a little further down the road to understanding what Canyon are like.


Their mark of distinction is that, rather than taking the classic elements of country music as they found them and coming across merely as retro revivalists, they forge and mould them into remarkable new shapes. The results are often, like the woman featured on the album cover, disarmingly beautiful. “Other Shore” – a song that evokes The Radar Brothers testing out effects pedals – might be emotionally bruised and a little world-weary, for instance, but it still manages to radiate a warmly romantic glow rather than wallowing in self-pity. The real highpoints of the record, though, have to be “Sleepwalker” and “Head Above.” The former is a wonderfully spellbinding and hypnotic opener; the latter a dense, brooding and rather ominous voyage into the unknown. “Head Above” eventually gives way to the searing clarity and simplicity of “Blankets & Shields,” which represents a return to safer ground, and, in the lyrical refrain “And in the end you ain’t gonna die / You’re always free”, a comforting sense of assurance.


Admittedly, though, the occasional track is by their own standards disappointingly limited in its horizons: “Lights Of Town,” while still endearing, is weighed down by vocalist Brandon Butler’s opening line, “The lights up ahead remind me of her eyes on the day she was wed,” dragging its feet in the mud of country and blues cliché; and on ‘Ten Good Eyes,” which sets out like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird,” the spacey effects taste like an under-nourishing and unsatisfying sprig of garnish.


Nevertheless, Empty Rooms is for the most part the sound of a band staggering out of the smoky, claustrophobic, whiskey-stale atmosphere of the bar-room and emerging into the clear, fresh, starlit night outside. Jamiroquai can go get fucked – hail the return of the real space cowboys.


Reviewed by: Ben Woolhead
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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