CD Review – Express and Company “Ontario”
Hailing from the thriving musical community of Peterborough Ontario, Express and Company is the band led by singer-songwriter Dylan Ireland, and their debut album, Ontario, is one of the most instantly lovable genre entries I’ve heard in years. Listing roots-rich influences that know a thing or two about rapturous harmonizing (The Band , The Sadies) and counting Peterborough as a towering inspiration upon the band’s songs, Express and Company (Ireland on guitars/vocals, Melissa Payne on fiddle/vocals, Benj Rowland on banjo, Liam Wilson on bass and Joe Hay on drums) have crafted eight delightful songs with a fine-tuned ease capable of warming hearts, lifting spirits and encouraging community with none of the usual gimmickry that often tempts lesser bands.
On Ontario, Ireland is a loyal student of one of the most time-honored laws of great writing – whether of song or literary: write what you know. It just so happens, most acts of the genre (whether you wish to call it Americana, country-folk, country-rock, roots music or alt-country) embrace themes of love, love lost, family and the open road. However, the best of the bunch – and Express and Company deserve the honor of being included in the upper ranks with these eight songs – paint honest scenes that appeal to sentimentality without being hammy, tug heartstrings without yanking off the chain, and craft rural prose that doesn’t strike the listener as hopelessly antiquated. Yes, Ireland sings of birds overhead, green grass, families by trees, women in faded jeans, beer, wine, a bay and tall, tall trees, but it comes across loud and clear with a burning 21st Century heart and earnest, adult emotions.
Just as Ireland rises above the mistakes of lesser songwriters while treading similar terrain, Express and Company incorporate banjo, accordion and fiddle in with their guitars, bass and drums, but they consciously avoid the conceit of absent-mindedly resting on any of those genre staples as cheap gimmicks. They haven’t traded in their drum kit for an overreliance on banjo and overwrought verses as is fashionable these days. No, they use their instruments as organic parts of a whole, and Express and Company’s songs are richer than so many of their ubiquitous peers for that very reason.
With that said, it’s not far-fetched to imagine the millions of fans who adore Mumford and Sons’ Babel and Sigh No More finding plenty to love on Ontario… should they ever come across this little Canadian export. There’s no “Little Lion Man,” ‘Ho Hey,” or American Idol-belted “Home” here, but that doesn’t mean Express and Company couldn’t turn heads and get some airplay under the most serendipitous circumstances. To my ears, each of the eight songs of Ontario possess a caliber of superior harmonies, playing and songwriting that would make it a travesty should Express and Company never find Mumford-level airplay.
The truth is this little gem is sublimely melodic without beating its chest, elegant without being virtuosic, down-home without being a hoedown – country without being COUNTRY. In fact, in addition to the band’s stated influences, the act I conjure most when listening to Express and Company is the incomparable Whiskeytown (with a side of Jay Farrar for good measure). That comparison is so fitting and representative of the youthful excellence on display here that I’ll go on record to say Ontario is the finest front-to-back record of its kind I’ve heard since Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia. (For the record, even though Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker – one of my all-time favorites is very much of the same genre, it sits it a different quadrant from Pneumonia and Ontario.)
From the rollicking chug of standout single “Carry Me Along,” powered by Ireland’s most Ryan Adams-esque vocal delivery alongside a phenomenal fiddle groove and the tight-as-hell bottom half, to the album’s poignant final line (If I die today / Where will you me bury me / under a tree or down by the bay? / Where will you bury me?), Ontario is heavy on heart and winsome hits. Two moments that most bring Ireland’s songwriting excellence and the band’s prodigious hooks to life come in the album’s title track and the penultimate beauty, “Out by the Trees.”
On the former, Ireland strums an acoustic guitar and chronicles the ups and downs of his hometown life as rooted in Ontario. The opening line “Another couple cold years and I’ll be done / with all this messing around in the northern sun” sets the scene, and the hook finds Ireland singing, “I’ve never been one for the telephone / unless you’re calling me up to tell me you don’t want me to go / Ontario” to exquisite effect.
“Out by the Trees” finds the band joyous from the outset, embracing the many of life’s simplest pleasures (family, music, spirits and sunshine) in total celebration of a modest life well-lived in a place called home. Ireland and Payne harmonize beautifully, singing “All my family / they sing harmony / they sing harmony out by the trees.” It’s an unpretentious line meaning to do nothing more than convey kinship and joy, and they knock it out of the park. By the time the band flares up and Payne’s exultant fiddle rouses up the verse “We drink beer and wine in the sunshine / we drink beer and wine in the sunshine / we drink beer and wine and that’s just fine,” it’s damn easy to think Express and Company may have granted you the answers to many of life’s most pressing questions in one terrific three-and-a-half minute country-folk song. They do it a time and again on these eight songs built to last and to love.
Express and Company’s Ontario is out now (released April 2, 2013) on Seventh Fire Records.
Express and Company – “Carry Me Back”
Express and Company – “Gold in Your Pockets”
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee. .
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing!