‘Because songs can travel over walls.” I could have it wrong. But I think what singer-songwriter Doug Paisley is doing with his rewarding new album Strong Feelings is getting to the necessity of music and the art of the song. Connections, in a word, and I dig it. So he may sing to “her,” but he’s thinking of you. And when he murmurs golden about “precious things,” let’s count word, melody and shared experiences among them.
Toronto’s Paisley, you might know, is a red-haired balladeer on the uptick. He’s got a thing for laid-back ’70s radio sounds and gentlemanly rural grooves. In return, the mainstream music press – Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and British publications on the hunt for rustic purity from the colonies – has a thing for Paisley.
His debut album, 2010’s under-the-radar hit Constant Companion, was a flannel-hearted beauty of soft hooks, mellow baritone musings and occasional vocal harmony from the exquisite Feist. Strong Feelings, which gets its launch at the Manhattan showcase venue Joe’s Pub on Jan. 22, travels a similar country road, with less catchiness but more unexpected flourishes in the arrangements.
It’s another winner. Paisley’s constant companion is music, and I’m going to guess listeners will feel roughly the same way.
The album begins with a short prologue. It’s Garth Hudson, formerly of The Band, playing piano notes in a sloping, introductory way – like something you might hear at the beginning of a Red River-type movie, with cattle drives, cow-poking and sassy gals on the plains.
Opener Radio Girl is a dreamy honky-tonk shuffle evoking lonesome highways and a singer on the air. Paisley’s signal clear; the song is about accompaniment. “I turned the radio on 25 years ago, and they were playing your song,” he recalls, not sadly at all. “You used to be all the world could handle.” Who is the radio girl? Is it k.d.lang? Your guess is as good as mine, if it even matters at all.
Song My Love Can Sing is wistful and brush-drummed, with a soothing giddy-up. It could belong to Midnight Cowboy or Glen Campbell. Hudson is there with a blanket of organ.
The above numbers could have both fit nicely on Constant Companion, so the worry early is that Paisley is comfortable – too comfortable – on the reprise. He sure can write a song and he’s got that smooth-throated way of Gentle Giant Don Williams, a Nashville hit-maker from the leisure-suit era. But fear not, Paisley and friends have gambits.
The flutey-mellotron incident on the slow-dancing Our Love is unanticipated. What’s Up Is Down is jazz to an Amarillo sunrise. Horns from Colin Stetson mingle with Hudson’s lightly-fingered piano; Mary Margaret O’Hara flirts with Paisley, delivering her lines in a manner that might seem absent-minded, but couldn’t possibly be.
To and Fro has a tougher gait, as the album moves into cosmic-country territory. But Where the Light Takes You is the album’s most assertive cut. The rodeo is Keelor-Cuddy blue, before taking a sharp turn toward Lennon-like rock. It’s about the songwriter’s loyalty to his work.
The album ends with Paisley and O’Hara singing a duet and whistling sweetly on Because I Love You. From Paisley: “This time I’m writing to you in a song.” And just look at you, blushing, because the fellow is looking right at you as he sings it.
The week in music:
Top selling albums in Canada for the week ending Jan. 12: In order, Beyoncé’s Beyoncé, Lorde’s Pure Heroine, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Disney’s Frozen: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Katy Perry’s Prism.
Top single: Timber, from Pitbull and Ke$ha's, topped the Billboard Hot 100, despite failing to lead any of the three component charts. Eminem’s Monster was the No.1 radio song, while Katy Perry’s Dark Horse galloped to the top of the digital and streaming charts
Released this week: Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ South, Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ Give the People What They Want. Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread and James Vincent McMorrow’s Post Tropical.