Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Sheepdogs (self-titled)

Around this time last year, we told you about the Canadian boogie rockers, The Sheepdogs (NMT). That review focused on their five-track EP, Five Easy Pieces, which marked their major-label debut on Atlantic Records, as well as some of their previous work. Now, the easy-going quartet has returned with its full-length addendum to that effort, the 14 cuts of the band's self-titled collection, out September 4th, again on Atlantic.

Once again, the boys from Saskatoon are bound and determined to convince everyone it's still the mid-70s and classic rock will never die. And even though their latest output isn't too far afield of the bulk of material from that era, nor does it make great strides from their previous work, it doesn't matter: there's just too few acts like this producing stuff like this anymore, and it's quite welcome.

The ease-in effortlessly with the aptly-named, "Laid Back." The carefree grove laid down by lead guitarist Leot Hanson sets a comfortable stage for frontman Ewan Currie's no-worries vocals. The crisp but unassuming pace set by bassist Ryan Gullen and drummer Sam Corbett is just as unforced as the more upfront vocals and guitar parts. Likewise, an unassuming piano line (the band doesn't credit its piano, keyboard and organ parts) rolls around like it also nowhere in particular, and that's not a problem. The chorus could be tighter – it's just a touch too frat-boy sing-along – but hardly a fatal flaw.

The dirtier follow-up, "Feeling Good," clicks up the volume a notch – largely through Hanson's fuzzy lead guitar – without sacrificing much of the good-natured vibe. Much like Five Easy Pieces, hints of Steely Dan emerge alongside thicker-cut slices of Grand Funk Railroad and The Allman Brothers Band. Its short 3:09 run time only reinforces the band's talent for not trying to do too much, and letting the concept flow naturally. That's augmented with Currie's airy acoustic guitar on "Alright OK," and the persistent but not obtrusive shaker percussion from Corbett. I'm not wild about Hanson's reverbed lead part here or the slightly distorted chorus vocals, but, again, it's not distracting enough to divert attention from the main body of the number.

Behind the nobs on this one is another fine crafter for the group's throwback sound, with The Black Keys' (NMT) Patrick Carney taking over from The Fountains of Wayne's (NMT) Chris Collingswood, who was at the helm of Five Easy Pieces. Carney's influence enhances the band's natural instincts with the retro production tools his own band has employed to propel them to arena rock status. That's evident on "Never Gonna Get My Love," which transitions from a George Harrison "Something"-style intro to a more Zeppelin-infused blues plodder.

Much like "The Middle Road" of their previous release, the band colors its blues-based boogie rock with tinges of the mellow jazz-rock of Steely Dan on "Ewan's Blues." The sliding pitch step of the combination organ used here is a nice reflection of Donald Fagan's similar parts on his group's standout tracks like "Do It Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," with a little added chugging guitar as the number builds. Meanwhile, "The Way It Is" offers a touch of The Doors' fusion of psychedelic blues and free-form rock, but doesn't try to be as much of a carbon copy that doomed their earlier nod to Jim Morrison and company on "Learn and Burn," which is a credit to their maturing talent.

The even looser "Javelina!" instrumental folds The Doors' style from its predecessor into Carlos Santana territory, with its wavy guitar licks and overlapping rhythms. It sounds much longer than its 2:38 play time by avoiding run-on jams and focusing instead on the latent melody, and surviving a murky mid-song deconstruction. If only more jam bands could be as efficient.

The group returns the boogie on "I Need Help," with a easy-spinning groove from Gullen and Corbett, paired with guitar harmonies from Currie and Hanson. When combined with organic-sounding chorus harmonies and another brisk run time, it lands squarely in the band's wheelhouse. The same is true for the following "Is Your Dream Worth Dying For," with brisk and wistful acoustic guitar foundations for the intro and chorus, but a stiffer backbone in the verses and a neatly-pegged electric solo from Hanson at the bridge. Much like the core of John Fogerty's catalog for Credence Clearwater Revival, their songwriting is best deployed in short, smart doses, and this collection takes that credo to heart, with no track running longer than "Alright OK's" 4:15.

After a reprise performance of Five Easy Pieces signature "How Late, How Long," the initially grainy and sparse "Sharp Sounds" is a little too unfocused to measure fully against the earlier cuts, but the wafting Hammond organ and another Hanson solo largely help redeem the number. "In My Mind" is slow and measured – a hallmark of late-appearing tracks – but "While We're Young" is fun and rollicking as the penultimate selection, smearing a swath of The Who's twitchy energy with some more carefree blues rock. Closing things out, the aptly-titled "It Ain't Easy To Go" is pure southern rock cooking, Currie's vocals filtered through a gentle haze and complimented with a sing-along chorus. Again, it's the last thing you'd expect from some good guys from Saskatoon, but they do it pretty darn well for a bunch of Canucks.

Come for: "Feeling Good"
Stay for: "Alright OK"
You'll be surprised by: "Javelina!"

P.S. – The record's deluxe version includes stripped-down, front-porch acoustic renditions of both "Alright OK" and "The Way It Is," along with a similarly reformatted of Five Easy Pieces opener, "Who," dropping much of the hard rock crunch and substituting a swinging blues motif as "WHOCOUSTIC." It might be even better than their first go at it.   

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