Favourite Colours – The Sadies
Yep Roc Records 2068
How else to say it? The Sadies' Favourite Colours is a very, very good album. And for whatever bullshit rationalizations, assumptions, and silliness follows, it should not be forgotten that Favourite Colours is eminently listenable and beautiful. Perhaps the ultimate mutation of the now-endangered beast of alt.country, The Sadies revive (or continue to revive, as it were) the C & W psychedelics of The Byrds, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and, gasp, even the more uptempo elements of American Beauty-era Grateful Dead.
But, let's face it, there was always something a little corny about Roger McGuinn declaring that he liked "the Christian life." Hell, God-given Johnny Cash voice and all, it was right hokey (25 years post-Sweetheart of the Rodeo) for Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar to run all over town claiming "the truth to [us he’ll] tell… I am a coalminer." It’s not that Farrar doesn’t sound like a coalminer, nor even that I’m not willing to believe that he once was one, but just that I can’t picture my imaginary coalminer fronting an alt.country band.
See, and that's not to say McGuinn and Farrar (and Gram Parsons and Jerry Garcia and…) didn't pull it off and make great, emotional music, either, just that it (in retrospect?) seems like a peculiar choice of expression. But I guess gamblers and railroads aren't always gamblers and railroads (just ask Robert Hunter). Anyway, the only reason it’s really an issue right now is because The Sadies take many of the same ideas brewing in the aforementioned bands and churn out music that effortlessly resounds with authentic modernity. (Generally, I don’t give a shit if musicians sound "authentic" or not, I just resent it when they make it an issue, and The Sadies don’t.) Favourite Colours (gen-u-wine Canadian spelling) is not nostalgic, mostly because it seems so bent on showing that things never really changed and, therefore, doesn’t come off as yearning for times long since gone, be it the Gold Rush days of ’49 or the Summer of Love. Word?
The album's most memorable song is the haunting "1000 Cities Falling (Part 1)," with its breathless references to "those who led our nation in the war to end all wars" and the "Godless earth / where a person's life is worth how many people and possessions they control." The sentiments themselves (minus the Godless part, of course) are practically Biblical, except for their particular arrangement: on an album of pleasurably shimmering country-rock, and set atop of a minor key strum and a quietly moaning lap steel. "On a dark and frozen land / lie 1000 cities damned / that circle 'round and 'round the dying sun." The language errs on the surrealist pastiche side of the alt.country equation, skirting righteously into Beck and Dylan territory (and is certainly more ambiguous than "the great atomic power" that the Tupelos sang of, covering the Louvin Brothers). In the hands of The Sadies, country music has again become a valid expression of contemporary life for young, hip North Americans.
But, beyond songwriting, what makes the album seem so new is its deeply informed depth. For starters, it's only a half an hour long — which, when you're done, somehow seems exactly the logical length for its 13 songs (and you'll have to hear it to disprove me, chum). The opening "Northumberland West" is a skittering instrumental surf-country rave-up that (I swear) I didn't even notice was an instrumental until around a dozen listens in. Every time it seems as if the vocals are about to begin, the band merely puts it up another notch, or jumps into a different section. There are several purely instrumental tracks scattered throughout, too – dramatic, soundtracky stuff – but they make so much sense that, again, it's hard to notice. The album flows with a natural purpose.
What allows The Sadies to get away with all this crap is that the performances are engaging. They brim with the kind of witty Zen introspection that most lyricists spend years trying to achieve, and melodic turns to match. "All those things you ever did will make you ask yourself 'what have I done?'" they sing on "Translucent Sparrow" before horns filter in above backwards-masked guitars and a vintage "Strawberry Fields Forever" drum part. They sing real purdy, too, almost never sustaining vocal notes beyond a simple, breathy exhalation.
And – whaddya know – The Sadies are ambitious. Another thing I didn't notice 'til the 10th or so listen: the "Part 1" that follows the aforementioned "1000 Cities Falling," the "Part 2" that is affixed to "Song of the Chief Musician," the "Part 3" attached to "Why Be So Curious?," and the instrumental "The Curdled Journey" that separates the latter two. A miniature movie? Dunno. I'll have to tuck that piece of information away for some other listen. Suffice it say, there will be many.