‘Northern Passages’ great strength is that it knows what it is. It renders itself in folk, country, garage and grunge, but it never stops being an album about the wilderness
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You don’t need Wikipedia to tell you that The Sadies are Canadian. Their latest album is called ‘Northern Passages’ and features the Aurora Borealis resplendent on the cover. Often labelled as a country & western band, The Sadies in truth pull influences from right across Canada’s rich guitar heritage. Rugged, majestic, and tailor-made for cold weather, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Sadies bleed maple syrup.
‘Northern Passages’ listens like a love letter to two of Canada’s heavyweights. Folk-rock veteran Gordon Lightfoot is the mould for the album’s folksier tracks, like opener ‘Riverview Fog’ and mournful ‘The Good Years’. The harmonised double-vocals of brothers Dallas and Travis Good give these tracks an ethereal quality, mysterious and hypnotic as the Northern Lights themselves. The lyrics are succulent, poetic and Lightfoot-esque, whilst the picked acoustic shimmers like winter’s first frost. Taking maybe a third of the album, the folk tracks are best suited to being played round a warming fireplace, presided over by a wall-mounted moose head.
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But though the Lightfoot’s influence is strong, it is the godfather of grunge Neil Young himself that is the album’s guiding star. Though still twanging enough to be labelled country folk, much of the album is lathered in gorgeously sludgy guitars, snarling like foghorns in the night. ‘It’s Easy (Like Walking)’ features lo-fi legend Kurt Vile on vocals, doing his best Young impression, whilst The Sadies shift their lyric-gear from poetic to puckish for such gems as ‘My left hand’s got a permanent air guitar tick’ and ‘my hand’s got fancy footwork’. On other tracks the vocals almost give way entirely, becoming second fiddle to tectonic guitar surges. The gritty, pseudo-psychobilly ‘Another Season Again’ belongs on the stereo of an ice-road truck as it speeds across Nunavut, whilst the behemothic ‘There Are No Words’ has all the grandeur and raw power of an icebreaker smashing through a glacier. Yet from the softest track to the heaviest, The Sadies never lose themselves. They’re country-folk rockers with tight-knit vocals and a rugged fur-trapper edge.
‘Northern Passages’ great strength is that it knows what it is. It renders itself in folk, country, garage and grunge, but it never stops being an album about the wilderness. It is gruff, gritty, and if you were to leave it abandoned in the Yukon for three months with nothing but a hatchet it’d be the kind of album that’d survive. Perhaps that’s The Sadies’ great achievement; despite not spelling it out in the lyrics or the subjects, this is an album that paints a vivid picture, and channels the same savage romanticism that Stan Rogers first sang about in ‘The Northwest Passage’. Bold, brutal, and unmistakably Canadian. If Captain John Franklin came back from his frozen cairn, parked the Erebus and Terror at an ice-trucker roadhouse, stumbled in delirious and ordered a triple-shot of bourbon, this is the album that’d be playing on the jukebox.