Graded on a Curve:
Doug Paisley,
Starter Home

It’s been four years since Toronto-based singer-songwriter Doug Paisley last released a record. In terms of quality, Starter Home, which is out now through Paisley’s longtime label No Quarter, picks up without a hitch where the man left off, courtesy of a sound that’s substantially country in nature, although sharpness of playing and depth of lyrical content place it head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of the form’s contemporary practitioners. While assuredly part of a long tradition, the familiarity of Paisley’s approach reliably sidesteps worn-out tropes, and if concise, his latest delivers a powerful statement (and please note a purchasing option that offers a bonus 45). It’s great to have him back.

With Starter Home’s opening title track, Doug Paisley wastes no time navigating through a narrative peppered with tough emotional truths. The song concerns home-buying and family life, and more specifically, the hopes and satisfaction, followed by the disappointments and disillusionments, that can occur with the passage of time.

Instrumentally and vocally, it’s pretty much dead solid perfect in how it captures a strain of country music primed at the very least for sturdy popularity if not widespread appeal. Enhancing Paisley’s fluid guitar and vocal warmth, there’s Michael Eckart’s pedal steel and later in the tune, John Sheard’s piano. However, it’s the content of the words that makes it clear how this new batch of tunes is destined to delight a smaller audience.

It’s not just in how the he describes a noisy motorcyclist as an asshole, therefore firmly nixing the radio play he wouldn’t have received anyway. No, it relates directly to how “Starter Home” is the exact opposite of “go down to the honky-tonk” escapism, dealing instead with the cold hard facts of existence and in a manner that steadfastly avoids the clichés that can hinder realism as a musical tactic.

With this said, Starter Home isn’t a bum trip. “No Way to Know” is gloriously pretty, in part through Alison Melville’s recorder, its inclusion underscoring Paisley’s disinterest in falling back onto standard country-isms. As it plays the strings of Drew Jurecka come in, and the whole reminds me more than a bit of Lambchop. This is unambiguously a good thing.

The following cut “Dreamin’” also reinforces how Paisley’s work springs out of and nicely extends the ’70s singer-songwriter tradition, though by track’s end he’s exploring robust contempo folk-rock territory that’s likely to please fans of My Morning Jacket (a connection aided by the soaring vocals). The folk-rock aura continues in “Easy Money,” which features especially tasty drum thump from Rob Drake as well as some organ and more of Sheard, who’s switched to electric piano here.

Extensive listening to records can trigger unexpected confluences of artistry. In this case, it’s in how “Mister Wrong” is reminiscent of another release from earlier this year, namely Chris Crofton’s Hello It’s Me. This comparison precisely highlights a shared similarity to hooky self-deprecating songwriters of the ’70s, though Paisley is a bit less invested in replicating said period’s distinctive strain of commerciality.

Suffice it to say, if you dig Hello It’s Me and don’t know Paisley, I think you’d do good to check out Starter Home. If you know bupkis about Crofton (and Paisley for that matter) but are amenable to the aforementioned Lambchop, this investigatory scenario stands. But there’s more. The dual guitars of “Drinking with a Friend” lend a mild folk-bluesy feel, with the organ of Chuck Erlichman reinforcing the artist’s longstanding tendency for rootsy folk rock.

Indeed, Paisley’s welcomed The Band’s Garth Hudson as a guest on prior recordings, though he’s largely working with a core band here, with the notable exception on the set’s last three tracks of frequent collaborator Jennifer Castle on harmony vocals. If “Waiting” inches away from the rootsy and toward somewhat mainstream pop singer-songwriter environs (additional electric piano deepens this sensibility), it’s smartly offset with Don Reed’s fiddle, so matters do remain cohesive.

The title of “This Loneliness” might seem like its flirting with the bum trip atmosphere referred to earlier, but with its mode of ’70s folk-poppy harmony-sweetness and recollection (complete with interjections of what sounds like synth that’re definitely redolent of the era), the song extends a curious but likeable late-LP left turn that’s finalized with “Shadows,” the up-tempo closer bringing the folk-pop (or maybe more aptly described, country-pop) flavor right to the border of a soft-rock zone.

After soaking up Starter Home’s beginning, these tracks with Castle aren’t exactly what I was expecting, though in flouting assumptions Paisley’s new one strikes my ear as deft, with brevity encouraging repeated listens that hold up via multidimensionality. If it doesn’t secure him a wide audience now, this latest chapter in a methodically growing discography is destined to gratify listeners for decades to come.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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