There is so much lo fi indie music coming out of Canada these days that any new artist hoping to make a splash had better have something special up their sleeves if they hope to stand out. Saying that, Winter Hours, the second full length CD from Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods is so understated and low key that it should have as much chance as a single snow flake making itself seen in a prairie snow storm, yet it has become one of my favourite albums of the year so far.
A month ago, I hadn’t even heard of the band, but since the disc dropped into my stereo for the first time two weeks ago, it’s been in near constant rotation. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s so endearing about the music that The Deep Dark Woods make. After all, they wear their influences so prominently on their sleeve that it’d be quite a stretch to say they’re doing anything original. One spin of the disc and any music lover will be able to point out the influence of The Band, early Neil Young, and American beauty era Grateful Dead on the group’s singing and songwriting. Yet, somehow the combination of their influences stitched together with a healthy dose of Cowboy Junkies style minimalism works beautifully. There is something so truthful, sincere and unaffected about the stance and approach The Deep Dark Woods take towards their music that it’s impossible not to throw cynicism aside and enjoy the twelve songs that make up Winter Hours.
Like The Band before them and Gillian Welch and My Morning Jacket of their own generation, the members of The Deep Dark Woods have obviously spent a fair amount of time with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and have conjured up a selection of songs that reflect all the yearning, hurting and dysfunction that Old Weird America has to offer. But, unlike Gillian Welch and My Morning Jacket, The Deep Dark Woods don’t attempt to update the subject matter of their songs to create a kind of weird intersection between antiquated sounds and modern sensibility. In this way, they take an approach more like the Band on their early albums in that they unabashedly draw from the well of North American frontier culture and sing their songs as if they were written yesterday. Nothing on this disc is as specific as say Levon Helm singing “Virgil Caine is my name” and throwing the listener back into the days of the American civil war, but there is no irony in Deep Dark Woods’ delivery as they sing about missed trains and unlucky young men swinging from impromptu gallows. Indeed, the whole album has a kind of Big Pink or Basement Tapes sensibility and informality about it as the songs the band sings seemed to have organically emerged from the earth and sky rather than the human voice. The songs sound as if they play through the musicians rather than by them.
The whole disc - with one exception - is comprised of originals, yet the songs these young prairie dwellers have composed feel timeless and sound as ancient as an old Carter Family 78. The one cover version on The Winter Hours, When First into this country, fits so snugly and unobtrusively into the flow of the album that it acts like an invisible thread that holds all of the songs together, giving credence and weight to their originals.
On Winter Hours, the band has been able manage the not inconsiderable feat of adopting the language of the old folk classics they are so obviously enamored with and incorporated it into their songs. Borrowing from the lexicon of the greats, The Deep Dark Woods rival Dylan’s last few albums for the sheer amount of lines lifted right out of the great American songbook. Yet, this is not a weakness and these tales of unfortunate souls going down the wicked path of sin and running out of cash as their girlfriends pass onto the great by and by are – without exception – exhilarating and a Hell of a lot of fun.
The stand out track on Winter Hours has to be All the Money I had is gone with its simple three chord melody and aching chorus that embeds itself in the listener’s memory after just one listen. Sure it’s a song about being sad, broke and alone after having just missed a train and you’ve heard songs like it a hundred times before. Still, there’s something magical about hearing the young men who make up The Deep Dark Woods sing these songs of love, loss and redemption in a way that is completely free of artifice and expectation. It would be easy to dismiss them for trodding such a well-worn musical path, but the musicians here and young and the music is new to them, and they sing it with the joy and power of new discovery. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the exhilaration they obviously feel when playing these songs.
Jerry Garcia had a life-long love affair with songs from the back alleys and dirt roads of popular music, and to hear the Deep Dark Woods rip through Polly with its melody that evokes Pretty Peggy O - a standard from the last century - one can hear an unbroken line that stretches all the way back from the Monroe Brothers to the Grateful Dead and forward to this band. This feeling of a musical torch being passed is enhanced by The Two Birds on the Bridge – a brilliant little song that acts both as an homage to Neil Young at his saddest and most awkward and as a hilarious jaunt through various shades of modern paranoia. Even when Deep Dark Woods stray into Eagles territory – which they do on Two Time Loser – the exhuberance of the performance makes a song that would have failed in another band’s hands into an enjoyable three minutes of musical adventure.
Finally, credit for success of the band’s vision must go to the award winning multi-instrumentalist and producer Steve Dawson for creating just the right sound and ambience for these songs. Winter Hours is the best recorded old school album this side of T Bone Burnett’s work on the Grammy winning Raising Sand, and is every bit as enjoyable. This is a wonderful record that should win over even the most jaded and crusty of roots music fans. Wonderful!