Time on the road had led Black and the Rodeo Kings to a new sound, inside dressing rooms, in the backs of rumbling busses, in the merchandise tent adjacent to the darkened stage. South, recorded appropriately enough during the too-often-overlooked Canadian band’s sojourn to Nashville, captures this more loose-limbed, acoustic-based approach. It captures a newfound intimacy, too.
In this way, the album (due January 14, 2014 from File Under: Music) feels perfectly in line with earlier work like 1999′s Kings of Love and 2006′s Let’s Frolic, but also like a significant shift. Blackie has never sounded more organic, more bracing, more present. Tom Wilson (who’s also worked with Lee Harvey Osmond), Stephen Fearing (Fearing and White) and Colin Lindon (The Band, Bob Dylan) have advanced the band’s aesthetic, without giving anything up — which is no small feat.
From the anthem’s rumble of the opening (and rather impishly named) “North,” by Wilson, to the chest-blooming quietude of Fearing’s “Everything I Am,” South spans an impressive gamut of emotional, and musical, textures. Linden answers with the circumspect-sounding, almost Zevon-esque title track, and then Fearing and Wilson offer the devastatingly confessional “I’d Have to be a Stone.” Wilson’s “I’m Still Loving You” skips along with a panting front-porch intimacy. Linden then collaborates with Wilson on the knee-slappingly propulsive “Fleur de Lys,” before sharing vocals with Wilson again on a smart cover of “Drifting Snow” by Willie P. Bennett — the Canadian singer-songwriter who inspired the band’s name with a similarly titled 1978 album.
There’s something connective here, between the men and their songs, between the music and our hearts — something deeper than we’ve heard from Blackie and the Rodeo Kings before. In getting a little quieter, in unplugging their electric guitars, they are speaking more directly — more clearly — than ever.