Blue Rodeo – Beyond the blues
It’s a predictable ending for Tremolo, a seven-minute song titled “Frog’s Lullaby” that slowly, quietly fades-to-black the hour-long musical excursion that preceded it. Such conclusions have been a trademark of most Blue Rodeo records, so you almost come to expect such a denouement, letting you go gentle into that good night.
Twenty seconds later, an alarm clock sledgehammers you wide awake again. The drums come a-thundering, the guitars come a-wailing, and Greg Keelor is singing with all the strength in his lungs, “Let’s go kick over tombstones/In the graveyard of my heart.” Indeed, “Graveyard,” all 2 minutes, 26 seconds of it, is the single most rockin’ song this band has ever committed to tape.
It’s a grand liberation, a shaking loose of some shackles that perhaps had begun to bind a little too tightly in recent years. The premier roots-rock band in Canada for the past decade — and with a seven-record catalog that rivals most any American roots band during that stretch as well — Blue Rodeo had become immersed in a bit of a moody funk during the mid-’90s. And while the results of that spell were sometimes magical, another side of the band seemed to be getting lost in the transition. That their last three albums ended with eight-to-nine-minute dirges was symbolic of that.
“I think that there was a sort of moment of self-consciousness,” co-leader Jim Cuddy said of the band’s realization that their records’ conclusions had begun to follow a certain path. “I don’t know how we ever established that pattern on our records that we would go out on a quiet note….So we said, Well, we’ve at least got to acknowledge that we know we do this, and that it’s not the only way to end a record. So we thought, well, why don’t we just let ‘Frog’s Lullaby’ end, as if it were a typical Blue Rodeo record. And then there’s this time lapse where you think, ‘Yeah, they always end their records like that.’ And you step up to go push the stop button on the CD player, and, all of a sudden, ‘Wraaaaaaaah!'”
The contrast of soft-and-loud extremes serves as an ironic but fitting conclusion to Tremolo, which overall is the most balanced album Blue Rodeo has made to date. Generally, Blue Rodeo’s catalog has followed a musical and emotional rollercoaster, with albums dominated by bright, catchy songs inevitably followed by deep, dark, long, soul-searching explorations. On Tremolo, those defining aspects have been merged on a single album more effectively than had seemed possible in the past.
From the haunting acoustic sway of the opening “Moon & Tree”, to the first single “It Could Happen To You” (a semi-political tune cleverly disguised as a simple pop ditty), to the more rockin’ moments of “No Miracle, No Dazzle” and “Fallen From Grace”, to the beautifully enchanting melodies of “Shed My Skin” and “Dragging On”, Tremolo is loaded with songs that could easily fill the airwaves of any Americana or AAA radio station. Meanwhile, the band’s more contemplative material fits in more seamlessly than ever before. “Beautiful Blue” and “Brother Andre’s Heart”, though clearly mood pieces, work as pop songs too, reeling you further into the record rather than casting things out in a different direction.
“I think that we were in a more balanced mode in all aspects — instrumentally, in terms of the personalities of the band, and in terms of the songs that we had,” Cuddy says. “We weren’t desirous to just live in one mode all the time. And we tried to put the record together in such a way that it would flow and work together, the pieces would interlock, the songs would work with each other.”
The new record also finds the band on yet another label in the U.S. While Warner Canada has been a solid and steady home for Blue Rodeo in their home country ever since their 1987 debut Outskirts went double-platinum (in Canada, that’s 200,000 copies sold), the group has been bounced around in the States, largely as various major-label imprints have mutated into others. The band began on Atlantic, then shifted to East/West, then shuttled to Discovery, and now has landed on Sire, which took over control of Discovery a few months ago.
Ironically, they may have finally found a U.S. label that suits them. The newly reborn Sire is stressing similarly styled roots-oriented acts, having recently signed Jolene and Tim Carroll while carrying Parlor James over from Discovery, and subsequently courting a label deal with Watermelon Records in an effort to claim acts such as Don Walser.
Keelor and Cuddy began playing together in 1977 in a garage/Merseybeat-style band called the HiFis, and shortly thereafter moved to New York for a short tenure with a band called Fly To France. They moved back to Toronto and forming Blue Rodeo in 1981 with bassist Bazil Donovan, keyboardist Bob Wiseman and drummer Cleave Anderson. The group spent the first half of the decade honing its chops on Toronto’s active Queen Street music scene in clubs such as the Horseshoe Tavern and eventually signed a deal with Warner Canada.
Outskirts kicked off the band’s recording career on a punchy note, highlighted by upbeat pop numbers such as the title track and “Rose-Coloured Glasses”, both of which remain staples of the band’s live shows a decade later. On the other hand, six-to-seven-minute tunes such as the closing track “Floating” and the jazz-influenced “Piranha’s Pool” hinted that Blue Rodeo’s horizons were broader than the rootsy pop that was getting them played on the radio (in Canada, anyhow).
The follow-up, 1989’s Malcolm Burn-produced Diamond Mine, saw a full flowering of those envelope-pushing tendencies; rarely has a band grown so much between debut and sophomore albums. With 13 tracks clocking in at just a shade over an hour long, Diamond Mine wasn’t without its memorable little ditties (“Fall In Line” remains among the group’s most beautiful songs), but the prevailing mood is one of sonic exploration and self-examination, with brief, eerie instrumental interludes serving as segues between several songs and the epic title track clocking in at over eight minutes.
All of which made a statement about Blue Rodeo’s musical abilities and aspirations; on the other hand, it wasn’t exactly easy to digest. “Man, I tried, but I just couldn’t get through it!” producer Pete Anderson admitted to the band when they asked him what he thought about Diamond Mine shortly before he began working with them on the follow-up album, Casino. Anderson’s approach was to give the band a sharp about-face, and he succeeded brilliantly. The only Blue Rodeo album under 40 minutes long (and one of only two under 60 minutes), Casino is a 10-track minor masterpiece of roots-pop, a worthy counterpart to the BoDeans’ Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams or Marshall Crenshaw’s self-titled debut. “Til I Am Myself Again”, “What Am I Doing Here” and “Trust Yourself” would almost certainly be shoe-ins for a Blue Rodeo best-of collection.