Graded on a Curve:
Doug Paisley,
Strong Feelings

Over the last five years, Toronto’s Doug Paisley has been quietly amassing an impressive discography. His latest album continues the strides made on 2010’s Constant Companion; it features the artist’s inviting voice and distinguished songs in combination with uncommonly rich musicianship from notable contributors like The Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly and The Band’s Garth Hudson. Strong Feelings can be tagged as alt-country, but as it unfolds the LP shapes up as much more than that.  

Though detractors of the genre might insist otherwise, alt-country encompasses a fairly broad stylistic range. Some of genre’s inhabitants are well-assessed as defiant or disruptive, lacing their music with a back-to-basics attitude that’s combined with varying levels of grit, non-professionalism and even audible distortion (basically a classic C&W no-no), with the gist of their endeavors connecting as a protest over how the music’s potent roots have been long-betrayed by the methodical slickness of various commercial agendas.

But others have chosen a far more traditional route, instead electing for a presentation that’s based upon one or more models from C&W’s heyday. Familiar influences in scenario include George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, and unsurprisingly Gram Parsons, the figure that many consider to be the genre’s original interloper. This fact essentially makes Parsons the prototype for alt-country’s eventual avalanche.

And the category’s been around for so long now that it’s easy to forget how quite a few people derided the style outright as it began making waves in the early ‘90s. It just so happens that many of those doing the complaining were dyed-in-the-wool Gram Parsons fans. Along the way, these carpers either overlooked or took ironic relish from how their treatment of these stylistic upstarts was indisputably similar to how Parsons and Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds got handled by Nashville insider Ralph Emery.

This is not to suggest that alt-country didn’t and doesn’t have its problems. For instance, the raw and raucous template outlined above (a sound to differing degrees tethered to a minor ‘80s phenomenon called country-punk) runs the risk of misplacing savvy execution in the pursuit of an admirable but rather commonplace idea, and it can be a riskier situation for the traditionalists; even if the songs are above average, there can be a nagging and sometimes defeating sense that it’s all just regurgitation swaddled in the aura of tribute.

A casual examination into the background of Toronto singer-songwriter/guitarist Doug Paisley might lead one to assume that he belongs to the trad camp. Prior to his run of solo works he played in two outfits with countryman Chuck Erlichman that are pretty specific in what they offered; one was called Stanley Brothers: A Loving Tribute and the other, a four-piece devoted to original compositions, employed the name Live Country Music.

But the pair also worked under the decidedly non country-centric moniker Russian Literature. According to an interview Paisley gave No Depression magazine, this was no offhand appellation; they completed one song derived from an incantation from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where the character Varenka heads out to pick some mushrooms and has an experience that’s possibly erotic in nature.

That’s awesome. Sadly their next piece, based on another incantation from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, was never finished. But even cooler is discovering from the same interview how that tribute to the Stanleys was performed by Paisley on guitar and Erlichman on Wurlitzer organ. And checking out their MySpace page reveals the project’s name as an appropriate one, but with the shift in instrumentation keeping the atmosphere from falling too close to reverence.

And these dips into Paisley’s early efforts help to underscore his congruence with an additional stream of alt-country, specifically musicians who are neither overly indebted to precedent nor noticeably unhappy with the current direction of the music’s mainstream. Instead, across a string of three full-lengths and an EP, the thrust of Paisley’s development impacts the ear as quite contemporary in scope.

But if not beholden to the past, he’s unmistakably tied to it, though along with the obvious country elements there are strains of folk and numerous moments reminiscent of the ‘70s singer-songwriter milieu. Because of the dangers inherent to the middle-of-the-road, this is a somewhat dicey neighborhood to hang out in. And while a solid disc overall, Paisley’s 2008 self-titled debut did occasionally skirt near that broken white line.

The reason is partially down to how there’s nothing overtly eccentric or unusual about the guy’s records. Paisley’s writing holds sturdy and accessible rudiments, the instrumentation he chooses to enhance it is often shrewd in its distinct coloration but never eclectic or dissonant, and his assured vocal delivery is warm and engaging. After time spent with Doug Paisley, the singing is perhaps the album’s best attribute.

His second LP, 2010’s Constant Companion, made no great adjustment to the strategy but still registered as a leap forward. It held an even better collection of songs, a tangible increase in Paisley’s comfort level and most importantly, improved instrumental environs. This last aspect is moderately due to the presence of Garth Hudson on keyboards, though in no way should a guest contributor usurp the proper credit for Constant Companion’s success.

In the end it’s about those songs, and they derive from Paisley’s hand. From there, 2012’s 10-inch/CD EP “Golden Embers” saw the focus shifting considerably, introducing the accompaniment of fiddle, mandolin, and drums. The result surely resembled the ambiance of much contempo Americana (a style that extends to Canada a la Neil Young, a cat apropos in this instance as a significant influence on Paisley), but when merged with sharp writing, guitar and voice, the whole easily lacks the politeness and sheen that so often afflicts the form.

The first sound heard on Strong Feeling’s opening track “Radio Girl” is Hudson’s piano as it offers an attractive prelude to a tune that synopsizes much of Paisley’s appeal as a performer. Seemingly with little or no concerted effort, the crisp, unabashedly straightforward track and the singing that communicates the emotional directness of his lyrics effectively erase the alt and the hyphen from the genre that loosely holds Paisley’s work.

References have been made to the “Gentle Giant” Don Williams, an undeniably mainstream country artist and major hit-maker from yesteryear that Paisley has cited as another influence. It’s a well-absorbed one, for two traits that help to define Williams’ career are taste and restraint, and these qualities are in ample evidence on “Radio Girl,” a song dealing with the topics of nostalgia and simple pleasures (in this case, music) that wisely avoids falling victim to a calculatedly homespun sensibility.

Instead, Paisley sings with controlled intensity as the music engages with him smartly. Twang is here but not overdone, with electric piano balancing the earthiness exceptionally well, and the choice of adding some ethereal female voices to the chorus (and a brief whistling excursion) bring those unexpected but again non-jarring twists. And then Hudson arrives to deliver the coda.

But with “Song My Love Can Sing” comes range. Fleshed out with non-grandiose organ, fleet picking and adroitly tidy drumming, the tune exhibits a creative freedom akin to the country-aligned material that flowed like crude out of Texas during the ‘70s. However, the bright popish tones of “It’s Not Too Late (To Say Goodbye)” continue to underline Paisley’s writing ability, with a superbly constructed instrumental passage keeping the straightforwardness of the cut from drifting into the realms of the ordinary.

The slender and calm “Our Love” is even more pop focused, and is in fact a small gem of non-trite ear candy.  But just when the lobes are getting totally seduced by the notion that he’s crafted what once would’ve been an inevitable country hit, a short and nicely done and completely proper synthesizer flourish emerges to reestablish the breadth of Paisley’s artistry.

This is followed with one of the LP’s true standouts “What’s Up Is Down,” an exquisite duet with Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara. As it progresses their expertly mingled vocals are leisurely yet emotionally intense, but its finest qualities are Hudson’s superb piano and later on, the magnificent addition of a left-field saxophone.

“What’s Up Is Down” reinforces Paisley’s knack for recalling the progressive side of the early-‘70’s singer-songwriter scene, and the more concise and less elaborate “Old Times” finds him landing securely in country-folk territory. From there, the equally trim “Growing Souls” attains a fragile power, with Paisley’s voice soaring as it’s enveloped in gorgeous clouds of organ.

The cumulative effect of this trio of tracks brings to this writer’s mind nothing less than the peak-era of Warner/Reprise Records. This is in part because the tunes make it rather difficult to easily categorize Strong Feelings; “Radio Girl” and “Our Love” feel like country hits done right, “What’s Up Is Down” and “Growing Souls” unwind like cuts tucked away for discovery on one of Warner’s “Loss Leaders” sets, and then “To and Fro” comes along and stomps up some country-rock dust.

“To and Fro” is additionally interesting for its derivation from Dark Hand and Lamplight, a project which found Paisley playing live in front of projected backdrops from Canadian artist Shary Boyle. If Paisley can still sometimes connect as an unapologetically conventional musician, under the surface is a well-tended ambition that makes his approachableness not only easy but often downright pleasant to swallow. Nowhere on Strong Feelings is this better observed than on “Where the Light Takes You,” which spends nearly three minutes in a full-blown country-pop place.

But after a sly false ending, it launches into a spirited rock zone complete with a woozy synth noodle that sounds like it might’ve been purchased at a yard-sale in Steve Miller’s front yard. And that might not read as enticing when typed out on a computer screen, but in the context of this album it sounds pretty dang swell.

As does “Because I Love You,” a short and stripped-down duet with O’Hara that with just vocals, acoustic guitar and a bit of well-rendered whistling lends this LP a tender and graceful closer. Strong Feelings might lack the raucousness that some require from roots-derived stuff, and it also won’t necessarily hit the sweet-spot of those seeking a traditionalist mode, but Doug Paisley is an alt-country performer of a different stripe.

His accessible songs come with an erudition that has thus far limited his audience, but if Paisley keeps making records as good as this one, larger popularity would seem to be, if not an inevitability, than at least a smart bet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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