home is wherever i’m with you

bristol rhythm & roots: the deep dark woods

the Deep Dark Woods — The Place I Left Behind. Out now, Sugar Hill Records.

I have to retract what I said about Blitzen Trapper being the band most likely to slay a deep cut cover by the Band (although they’re still second on the list); that honor really belongs to the Deep Dark Woods, and not just because they’re from Canada and Pam introduced me to them last summer when I was in the middle of my wild obsession with the Band, where I spent a lot of time lying on my bedroom floor listening to scratchy demo tapes from Big Pink and drinking beer via a straw so I didn’t have to sit up. But because the DDW have always had a fierce sense of place in their records, like the Band, and lead singer Ryan Boldt has a voice that’s almost as striking as Rick Danko’s, and Geoff Hilhorst is probably the keyboard player whose organ work comes closest to matching the talent of Garth Hudson.

And, of course, that sense of place is not missing from this record, not in the least.

The Place I Left Behind doesn’t sound like the Band, not entirely; it sounds like the open plains of Saskatoon, which makes sense, and it’s thickly layered with pedal steel and fuzzed out guitars more apparent than Hilhorst’s (still lovely but much more subtle) keyboard work than on their previous three releases. It’s a dark and haunting kind of album, even when it opens with the upbeat-sounding “Westside Street”, a song that sounds happy even as its words condemn the street of the title and the town it’s in — an album about, well, leaving places and people you love. The title track’s lyrics ache with missing, and the back to back hits of “Mary’s Gone” and “Virginia” are just as much about how people can be the places you leave as actual places are:

oh, virginia, she only wants me when it suits her
she doesn’t even see me in the future
oh, how lonesome i’ve become, haven’t slept for days
hear the rattle and the hum, she’ll come crawling back in may

Boldt’s songwriting on this album is spectacular; he uses the sounds of country music (the wailing pedal steel, Good Lord) to mimic the wide spaces and huge emptiness of his subjects. It’s a love letter to people and places long gone — so take me back to the windy coast/back to the place that i love the most — and every aspect of the album takes that into account, from lyrics to orchestration to the shivering harmonic vocals on the choruses of tracks like “The Banks of the Leopold Canal” (a song about the power of government and powerlessness of the people; apt, yes?) and “Big City Blues”.

It’s not all diversion from their old sound, though: “I Just Can’t Lose” is pinned down by Hilhorst’s gorgeous organ work, and it sounds like something that might have gotten lost from the Basement Tapes, or maybe like how “The Weight” almost didn’t end up on Music From Big Pink. It’s the perfect sonic representation of Boldt’s crooning chorus, the long blues guitar break matching his lyrics, i just can’t lose, i just can’t lose. And “Dear John” takes all those harmonies and turns them into one of the few songs on the album that’s as upbeat as it sounds, a song about coming home to the ones you love.

This is a gorgeous, sad and hopeful album. It’s raining today, and it’s cold again, and it’s the perfect sort of warm and lonely album for a day like this. This is a November album, when spring seems a long way off, but you know it will, eventually, get here. It’s heart-rending, but it’s joyful. And it’s basically just really, really great.

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