Monday, October 25, 2010

The Early Widows - Justin Rutledge

The Early Widows

Justin Rutledge
Six Shooter Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Justin Rutledge’s name has always been more familiar to me than his work. It's a name that might not stand out among Canada’s folk-centric export-list of birth-name musicians totting acoustic guitars, where the truly gifted tend to blur in with the coattail clingers. Yet the Rutledge name has far more prestigious connotations than local indie-admiration, and the man twice long-listed for the Polaris Prize officially distinguishes himself from our nation’s sad-sack contemporaries on The Early Widows.

The grounds that single Rutledge out from a line-up of rootsy, plaid-wearing balladeers isn’t as cut-and-dry as the laws of genre would prefer. Yes, The Early Widows bears the alt-country cross, even if the reality of its ten songs is far bleaker and emotive than most followers of Great Lake Swimmers or Hayden could handle. This is death-country, patiently throbbing amidst a spectrum of highs and lows (mostly lows) reminiscent of California’s infamous desert valley. So then what renders the yearning ‘Islands’ or ‘Turn Around’, with its kick-drum echoing canyon-wide, so captivating? Rutledge’s quivering vocals don’t disappoint, lending a committed authenticity to lyrical olive-branches, and his frugal climaxes ensures The Early Widows’ flow more meditative than conservative, but give due credit to Hawksley Workman as well. Without Workman’s subdued but all-encompassing production, placing expertly layered contributions into a barren but hopeful abyss, Rutledge’s restraint and perpetually earnest tone might’ve stretched this record into an unmerciful marathon. At their chest-beating best, Rutledge and Workman churn out exhausted ballads about drawing lines in the dirt. ‘Be a Man’ and ‘I Have Not Seen the Light’ both build from down-and-out lyrics and Top 40 country-signifiers to rousing choruses that satisfy any listener’s restless highway spirit.

If the mention of “exhausted ballads” doesn’t tickle your buying-bone, The Early Widows will likely test your patience. Even ‘The Heart Of a River’, an excellent mid-tempo rocker, can’t balance out its neighbouring stillness. Those with a tolerant ear, however, will persevere Rutledge’s pitch-black plateaus and learn to appreciate their creeping beauty. Although the pacing may be litigious for some, the album’s mood fills in any generous compositional holes with pedal-steel and choirs. All of these additional musicians create a bigger, more compelling picture for The Early Widows, even if none of them can make it feel tighter.

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