Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Sheepdogs

Inasmuch as last week's profilees – Fountains of Wayne – looked back to early-'60s pop rock on their latest release, so to do this week's featured act – The Sheepdogs – with late '60s and early '70s-era classic rock on their five song EP, Five Easy Pieces, out on August 2 on Atlantic Records, and produced by Fountains of Wayne bassist and co-songwriter, Adam Schlesinger. And given that this space customarily focuses on full-length records, and that their third LP, Learn and Burn, was released not that long ago in January, 2010, we'll include a glance back at that preceding work to explore more of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan quartet's larger sonic footprint. (You may have heard a bit of buzz about the band recently, as they were the first then-unsigned band to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, after a contest in which they bested 15 other groups. Some of the group's success in winning the competition could be attributed to their excellent, political campaign-style attack ad (see below), which claimed the band the only one worthy of the cover due to their extensive facial hair.

Everything about the four-piece outfit screams classic rock, circa 1972 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, belling their heritage on the Canadian plains. Surely you immediately thought the same thing just by glancing at their photo shot at the top of this page. Even their record label – Atlantic – was and is one of the foremost distributors of classic acts, ranging from Cream and Led Zeppelin through the progressive rock of Genesis and Rush to more contemporary purveyors of the genre like Stone Temple Pilots, Jet and Scottland's Frightened Rabbit. In return for their investment in the fledgling Sheepdogs, Atlantic inherits a band thoroughly grounded and informed by the boogie.

You remember the boogie, don't you? It's usually associated with such adjectives as swagger, strut and groove, and implies a movement inherent in a piece of music that compels dance, or at least an aggressive head bob. It came about in the earliest forms of blues, R&B, rock, soul, funk and hip-hop, and can be heard spanning the pop music spectrum from Fats Domino and Little Richard to the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, all the way up to the Sugar Hill Gang on "Rappers' Delight" or the frenetic "But Anyways" from Blues Traveler. The late '70s disco wave threatened to co-opt the boogie through its singular focus on the beat, but the format proved too shallow to permanently occupy its spirit and left false boogie prophets like KC and the Sunshine Band by the wayside.

But it hasn't been seen in these parts in quite some time, perhaps as long ago as an inspired performance from Prince, or even more distantly, the tongue-in-cheek pop of the Foo Fighters' "Big Me," especially its bouncy bass line originally laid down by Dave Ghrol and long since banished from their setlists. But the alternative and grunge of the '90s were too sullen and misunderstood to have any room for the boogie, and what's followed has migrated to the extremes – excessively intelligent (see Decemberts, The or Arcade Fire, The) or hopelessly uninspired (oh, where to begin...maybe Rebecca Black, Big & Rich, the Bieber) – domains uninhabitable by the boogie. Even the closest link to the heydays of classic rock – the currently disfunctioning Kings of Leon, for whom The Sheepdogs are scheduled open on their now in-doubt Canadian tour – are too tight to ever achieve the looseness required for the boogie to take root.

Fortunately, The Sheepdogs are here to rescue the boogie from life support and inject it with a new dose of vigor and identity. In doing so, both the five tracks of Five Easy Pieces and the 15 more on Learn and Burn are layered in the fingerprints of their classic rock and boogie ancestors. There's overt nods to Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Janice Jopin, Steely Dan, The Doors, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Chicago and more implicit traces of the Beatles and Stones, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and maybe a whispered hint of Dylan or Springsteen. They're the sort of act that would have been the perfect support on a bill with any of those legendary performers, or Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical early 2000's film, Almost Famous. Its the stuff of smartly-paired guitar harmonies, a Hammond organ or steel guitar line wafting about like the aromas of a neighborhood cookout, and blended vocal harmonies, those that are thankfully just shy of autotune perfection. But the Saskatchewan guys nearly always manage to deliver their take on what is already a well-mined genre of music without becoming recidivists or plagiarists.

Lead-off single off Five Easy Pieces, "I Don't Know" – itself the only cut reprised from Learn and Burn – is textbook boogie rock. It's loose and easy, with earthy, Eagles-style harmonies and bluesy guitar riffs and duos. On a quick view of the initial video for the track (see below), the boys' residency in the swagger and groove of the number is demonstrable.

There isn't actually all that much more to say about the song, except to enjoy its breezy demeanor and note how fully it reflecta the group's approach.

It's follow-up, "The Middle Road," points more directly to one of its stable of influences: the more jazzy piano arrangements and hooky harmonies of Steely Dan. Last week, I noted the vocal similarities between Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and Liam Gallagher of oasis/Beady Eye. In much the same manner here, lead singer and guitarist Ewan Currie is a vocal doppelganger for Steely Dan's Donald Fagan, most notably on the number's bridge, as Currie sings, "you're so tragic, when there's magic..."

Later on in the abbreviated collection, "How Late, How Long" displays a bit more southern rock power and tempo. The contrast between its bouncy chorus and more driving verses recalls southern staples like the Allman Brothers and Credence Clearwater Revival, although the latter of these actually hailed from California, not Louisiana, as many believe. Currie and fellow guitarist Leot Hanson trade tangy riffs across the track's 4:08 of run time, but it seems to breeze by in half as long due to its kicking groove.

The two remaining tracks which round out the EP – the opening "Who?" and "Learn My Lesson" in the cleanup spot – display much of the same vision, but aren't quite as catchy as their livelier counterparts.

On "Learn and Burn," there's greater variety of offerings, which is predictable, given the long-play record (LP) is three times as long than the more recent extended play (EP). The relatively short opener – "The One You Belong To" – is a mix of piano and organ you may remember from such material as Beck's "Where It's At" and Credence Clearwater Revival's version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine," and then segues into the more jaunty "Please Don't Lead Me On." The chorus rambles on like Janis Joplin’s Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," with its jangly guitars and springy rythym, courtesy of bassist Ryan Gullen and drummer Sam Corbett.

Following the original debut of "I Don't Know" – not much different in concept or execution than the updated version – the acoustic-fronted "I Don't Get By" suggests Zeppelin, while the title track is really the only effort the group makes that comes across as forced. Clearly a send-up of The Doors, the number's desert surrealism doesn't quite mesh with the looser bluesy foundation of the rest of the material. And while Currie pulls off a decent mimic of Jim Morrison, and the trippy organ part is squarely in The Doors' wheelhouse, its hard to envision Morrison commenting on "all these small talk conversations and Facebook invitations."

On the other hand, the lighthearted groove returns on "Southern Dreaming," with its Tex-Mex flavored riffs, something less Santana and more of their contemporaries in Los Lonely Boys' "How Far is Heaven?" Meanwhile, "Soldier Boy" is more hard rocking and plucky, and sets the stage for the jammy "Catfish 2 Boogaloo," which at 4:09 is the longest cut on either record.

"Rollo Tomasi" could have easily appeared Chicago's seminal early work before the death of frontman Terry Kath, with its rolling piano, muted horns and R&B-style chorus, and is a fitting homage to that group's importance in the late '60s. Similarly, "Suddenly" harks back to the vocal harmonies and acoustic foundation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, before seamlessly kicking into the groovy, yet edgy "Baby, I Won't Do You No Harm." Somehow, it links a group like populist The Lovin' Spoonful with heavier elements of the hard rock and metal traditions.

Come for: "I Don't Know"
Stay for: "How Late, How Long"
You'll be surprised by: "The Middle Road"

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