Best tunes of 2011: #13 The Rural Alberta Advantage “North star”

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Just after Christmas in December of 2011, I joined my friend Tim on a short road trip out to Cambridge to visit his friends Greg and Wendy. They had recently opened a used records and book store called Millpond and we met up with them there to check it out, just before they closed for the day.

(I browsed their record selection with some interest, though I was still a few months removed from starting my collection in earnest.)

Afterwards, we went out for dinner, where there were plenty of laughs and reminiscences and of course, talk eventually turned to music. The fact that I had recently starting blogging about music was raised and I showed them the home page on my iPhone, which at that moment was deep in the depths of my first ever end of the year, best albums countdown. Wendy exclaimed that she liked the look of one of the album covers and when I looked at the one about which she was talking, it was The Rural Alberta Advantage’s sophomore album, “Departing”. Its cover art is mostly white, what looks like a mostly untraveled two lane highway obscured by whiteout conditions, snow sliding across the asphalt, a set of headlights barely visible in the near distance. Incidentally, it aptly foreshadowed our drive back to Toronto as we were hit by one of those surprise snow storms particular to the areas surrounding Lake Ontario.

Without digging back in the archives of my old blog, “Music Insanity”, I couldn’t tell you what position “Departing” held in my top ten that year but I think if and when I redo it on these pages, this album would still be somewhere in the mix. The Rural Alberta Advantage is an indie rock trio, that despite their moniker are actually based out of Toronto. Their sound is the happy melding of Nils Edenloff’s rough guitar manhandling and raw vocal chords vocals, Amy Cole’s delightful keys and other percussion flourishes and her soft touch backing voice, and of course, Paul Banwatt’s frenzied impression of Animal punishing the drum kit. Every song on the album, nay, on all their albums, is an adventure.

The first half of “North star” is more sparse than the usual RAA tune. Cole’s piano chords are like a punctuation on Banwatt’s drum rhythm, those that just chug along like the sleepers on a night train, above whom the glass ceiling looks over the prairie night sky and the stars are everywhere, a million pin holes in the night. Then, the piano becomes more than an accent and fills all the rest of the empty space with chimes and bass reverberations. Edenloff, meanwhile, is almost restrained, singing forlornly about a love that might never be.

“We’re far apart under the same sky,
You’re diving in the dark I’m in the city’s lights,
Wishing just to see you for another night.”

If you’ve never listened to the RAA before, I suggest you give the song below a go. You’re welcome.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.

Best albums of 1998: #2 Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

After seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 about a project. It seemed Woody Guthrie had left the lyrics for thousands of songs he had written but not recorded and for which, no music had been notated. Nora wanted to bring these songs to life for a new generation. Bragg agreed but not before enlisting the help of American alternative rock band, Wilco. The results were better than anyone could have expected, garnering critical acclaim, record sales, and a Grammy for everyone’s troubles.

I picked up on this album a few years after its release and mostly because I’d been a fan of Billy Bragg for a number of years. I’d heard a few of its songs beforehand but didn’t know then that they were re-creations of those written by Guthrie. Of course, when I first listened to it, I preferred the songs sung by Bragg to the others sung by Jeff Tweedy because I only knew Wilco by name, not their music. However, I have since grown to love all of the songs and appreciate the difference Tweedy’s voice lends to those others.

The sound and instrumentation of “Mermaid avenue” was definitely different from what I was used to with Bragg, which is likely why he wanted Wilco to help: to signal to all that this was not about him. It is old school Americana but with a modern edge, like actors dressing up in old costumes but speaking in modern colloquial. I’m not all that familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music, save for the iconic “This land is your land”, of course, but I have to imagine he would’ve been happy with the results. His daughter definitely was because the success of this album spawned two later volumes, as well as a box set collecting all of the compilations in one set.

It is typically difficult to narrow down my picks for you to three but this one was near impossible so I just took the first three in running order. Enjoy.


“Walt Whitman’s niece”: My first pick here is a song that sounds like a tall tale that might be spun in any bar in the world. “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night, a seaman friend of mine, I’ll not say which seaman…” It is a literary conquest sung (and told) by Bragg with the band members of Wilco as house band. You can almost picture Bragg sitting precariously on a stool having at it on his guitar after one too many and the band stomping along with him at the piano and harmonica, shouting along with him at the appropriate parts. It’s unseemly and full of innuendo and lots of good fun. Whitman would’ve been proud.

“California stars”: Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) sings this next one around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the fields with fellow workers. “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars. I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars.” It is a clear but lonely night. The sky is big and full of stars but not the same ones that watch over California, where his beloved lays sleeping and waiting for him. You can feel this longing and dreaming in every strum on the guitar, whine of the pedal steel and peal of fiddle. Tweedy’s voice is perfect here, giving it a completely different than it would’ve had if sung by Bragg. It’ll charm you for sure.

“Way over yonder in the minor key”: This one’s got a feel that reminds me of Huck Finn or The Little Rascals. “Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree and laid it on the she and me. It stung lots worse than a hive of bees but there ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Its language is childish, like a skipping game or patty cakes, and suggests a young first love. Billy Bragg leads the tale with Natalie Merchant adding her lovely vocals at the chorus. It’s gentle and melancholic, perhaps a remembering of a time long gone. It’s so beautiful, you’ll want to listen to it over and over again.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

100 best covers: #81 The Pogues “Dirty old town”

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Ok. So it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted one for this series, well over three months for sure. And this is another that I didn’t know was a cover for the longest time. The Pogues recorded “Dirty old town” for their second album, 1985’s “Rum, sodomy, and the lash”, and it’s here that I’ve heard and sung along to these words countless times.

It was originally written in 1949 by actor, poet, playwright and songwriter, Ewan MacColl, who is, incidentally, the father of Kirsty MacColl. (I’m sure you all see the connection.) He wrote it for one his plays, “Landscape with chimneys”, as an ode of sorts to Salford, the town of his birth. He later recorded it in 1952 and it has become a folk classic, apparently covered dozens and dozens of times. Perhaps it was most famously done by The Dubliners in 1976, whose version (check it here) was upbeat and raucous, with banjos, fiddles, and shout along vocals, and likely influenced that of The Pogues.

MacColl’s original, at least the recording in the video below, is by contrast scratchy and hissing and full of cobwebs, sounding forgotten in the darkest corner of your grandparents’ attic. It is a soft strum on the guitars, almost an afterthought to the sorrowful vocals, MacColl warbling all over the place. It is only 2 minutes 45 but feels a whole lot longer.

The Pogues’ cover is also sad but decidedly more upbeat. It is not hoarse and roaring like The Dubliners do it, nor as punk-influenced as other tunes in The Pogues back catalogue. It is a song to sway to with a frothy pint in hand, the band off in the pub’s corner, a harmonica crying sadly, the mandolin waffling and sniffling, the fiddles creaking like a squeaky old door, and Pogues’ vocalist Shane MacGowan slurring roughly, as he is wont to do. All in all, there’s plenty of memories and regret in each note and tap on the drums.

So in sum, I think all three of the versions here are great but the one by The Pogues is my preference. Thoughts?

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.