Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reviews:: The John Henrys Sweet as the Grain

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A few weeks ago I threw together some thoughts on the talented roots outfit known as The John Henrys. On the surface, the Ottawa band's sound might seems as familiar as the legend from which they took their name and whether you prefer Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Boys, or something more modern like Ryan Adams, easy comparisons can be made to sound the quintet creates.

But as so often is the case with a tried and true fable or over referenced legend, most of the truth is usually lost in the telling. Sure, the JHs may prefer sounds that originated in the 60's and 70's and could be seen as a modern day take on the man versus machine (roots versus electro fused, ADD anthems) analogy, but calling the John Henry's a nostalgic throwback to a time long since gone is just wrong. Simply describing them as some carbon copy combination of the bands all too often used to describe them would be as pointless as some spindly arm wimp trying to drive a rail spike into the ground.

The re-release of Sweet As the Grain has helped ensure the band's dusty trail anthems don't fester on AM radio stations and tired old jukeboxes. Lost in the Canyon shimmers and the band freshens up the roots sounds with feedback and solos, but never sacrifices the song's authenticity. You never feel like these guys found their cowboy shirts at Walmart or a vintage store and as a result, they connect with the listener as they dare you not to close your eyes and sing along to songs like New Years or Angel.

But the biggest surprise is how the record drifts from alt-country to R&B so effortlessly. Padawadamie shifts the breezy tone of the first two songs into a more uptempo saunter and the guitar that on Eldorado and Golden Train could have been found a home in a Marty McFly/Marvin Berry's jam sesh. The surf guitar they throw on Thought Yourself Lucky is as unexpected a twist as you can imagine, but somehow doesn't feel out of place on the R&B number but even with all these styles they have the chops to bring you back with traditional folk picking (like they do on the anti-drinking ditty, I Ain't Gonna Drink No More).

The songs have taken on new life, largely a result of the peers the band have toured with over the last two years. The alt-country scene in Canada is as successful as ever, and The John Henry's have benefited from the guidance of acts like Cuff the Duke and the Sadies. The end result is that the John Henry's found a way to stride passed every assumption you might have had, but so smoothly and subtly that you never feel out of your comfort zone.

All in all, outside of Justin Rutledge's effort, I don't think I've heard a better Canadian roots record so far this year.

Posted at 6:00 PM by ack :: 0 comments

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