Sunday, September 30, 2012

Risk-Free Music With a Good Sound: The Sheepdogs

A few years ago legendary musician Tom Petty made an appearance on the Charlie Rose program to discuss the music business, and more specifically rock. Rose asked him about the health of the genre; Petty’s reply: “It’s asleep.” But one could say that it has been asleep for many years, at least, as the kind of pure, unadulterated music that bands like Petty’s Heartbreakers once did between 1967 and 1975. If I were posed such a question myself, I might submit that music, and in particular rock & roll, has evolved by borrowing influences across a number of genres rather than branching out from the same, extended blues roots.

The Sheepdogs, the Canadian quartet from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, may be the last link to any pure form of rock music. Rooted in the blues, yet forged by the tough sound of electric guitars, The Sheepdogs have always reminded me of a blend of styles from such roots rock bands as The Grateful Dead, CCR and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But as an up and coming Canadian act, whose first three records barely scratched the all-important American market, The Sheepdogs finally got launched into stardom by making the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2011. Thus a new rock music saviour was born and the band was signed to Atlantic Records. Produced by Patrick Carney, of The Black Keys, this self-titled release is an album specifically focused to introduce the band to a larger audience. Unfortunately, while the record may generate wider appeal, it does nothing to alert or awaken the music from Tom Petty’s defined slumber. (The Foo Fighters did that!)

Recorded and mixed in two-and-a-half weeks, the first six tracks on The Sheepdogs sound just like ordinary rock songs: straight-ahead vocals, and electric guitars marginally pushing the music. Then part way through comes “Javelina!” where the album finally hits a groove. It’s an instrumental reminiscent of The Allman Brothers’ classic “Jessica” that helps showcase The Sheepdogs' sound. It doesn't rock-out like it should, but over time and some live performances it could easily become a fan favourite like “Jessica.”

Following "Javelina!," the feel of the band takes off in a decent two-guitar hook, on the song “I Need Help,” in spite of lead singer’s Ewan Currie’s unanswered cry. But this song is merely an appetizer to the main meal served up on “Is Your Dream Worth Dying For?” clearly inspired by CSNY. It’s nice to hear the band really swing on this one. By the next track, “How Late, How Long,” the feel of Lynyrd Skynyrd is in full tilt with the double lead guitars of Currie and Leot Hanson. The tune features a solid, irresistible lick from the guitars demanding repeated listens. But we don’t get a formula pop song until near the album's conclusion with “While We’re Young.” It’s got a hard edged sound that is well sustained under the refrain “we’re on the run, while we’re young.” The last cut, “It Ain't Easy To Go,” is a well-crafted song that captures a free-spirited man headed for the West Coast toward warmer climes.

It’s a pity that only half of this album succeeds. Patrick Carney’s production captures a very tight ensemble but it is a little too ostentatious. The album is still searching for a new audience in which to make an impression. And on one level it does. But it’s risk-free music with a good sound: nothing more nothing less. Better to see and hear this band in performance and take the CD as a souvenir.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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