Lost Record of the Week: Oh Susanna, Sleepy Little Sailor
I have a theory about listening to new albums. It’s like dating. The first date can be fun, sure, but it can also be full of awkward bits, weird surprises, and strange twists. Same with an album. If you get through the first date (listen) without being totally repulsed, you’ll probably try it again. On the second date (listen), some of these quirks become a little more familiar, the flow of your time together makes a bit more sense, but there are still some surprising moments, further indications that you may or may not like this person (album) after all. By the time the third date (listen) rolls around, you’re feeling good. Now you know this thing well enough that you can start to predict it, but it’s still pleasantly intriguing. Those moments of familiarity aren’t old yet, but familiar enough to be fully enjoyed. If you commit to the third listen (date), you’re probably going to be hooked for awhile.
Well, Oh Susanna got me on the second listen. I’ve been getting hooked on albums on the third listen for as long as I can remember, but something in Sleepy Little Sailor stuck right away so that I knew what was coming on its second spin. Her comforting voice, delicate arrangements, and fine songwriting make for a record that’s easy to return to many times.
Sleepy Little Sailor is Toronto-based singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider’s third album, released in 2001 on Outside Music. Produced by Colin Cripps (Jim Cuddy, Kathleen Edwards) and featuring a familiar Toronto cast of roots musicians like Joel Anderson (also Jim Cuddy), Bazil Donovan (again Jim Cuddy and Blue Rodeo), Bob Packwood (I think Blue Rodeo may have got their start on this album), and Six Shooter singer-songwriter Luke Doucet, the album is a concise package of solid songs.
It opens with the title track, a song with a juicy electric guitar, arpeggiated acoustic guitar, and brushed drums. “River Blue” picks up the tempo a little, featuring Packwood’s tasteful playing and Ungerleider’s play with vocal timbres. Even though her vocal delivery is subdued on “Kings Road,” the busy lyrics, changing textures, and relatively upbeat tempo make it a focal point on the album. “St. Patrick’s Day” is a songwriting feat, with a slightly unpredictable but lovely melody that underpins the sombre subject matter. Her small ornaments at the ends of phrases are reminiscent of those heard in traditional Irish or British folk songs.
Oh Susanna oscillates between introspective songs that are quietly delivered against arrangements that complement her sweet voice and more energetic songs, sung in a sarcastic vein equal to what Kathleen Edwards or Neko Case are known for. I particularly liked “Ted’s So Wasted,” a rocker driven by chromatic piano fills, with the line: “Why did I hope for the better/When everything kept gettin’ worse/We walked down the aisle together/While our love took a ride in a hearse.”
The album finishes with a ten minute ballad called “Ride On.” Every time I heard it, I zoned out a little bit, then came back to it, realizing I was still hearing the familiar melody. The ballad doesn’t suffer from the length; depending on how you listen, it is either a jarring narrative or a comforting close to an album that largely maintains a steady mood.
I recently read a fan comment on an article about Oh Susanna that lamented how she should be better known. I agree. Between her powerful songwriting, compelling voice, and solid roster of side players, she should be considered one of Canada’s top songstresses.
Oh Susanna is on tour with Matthew Barber right now. The dates for their concerts can be found here.