Review Summary: Country music: northern edition.
Colter Wall’s style is very much reminiscent of the past, he is a link to an unspecified golden era of country music that is characterized chiefly by simplicity and plainspoken honesty. The raw and unpolished production of this album further attests to this quality, as most of the music consists only of Wall’s haggard voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment. Night Herding Song takes this to the extreme, as it is a nearly unaccompanied vocal performance by Colter which shows his versatility as a singer. Likewise, Colter’s guitar playing is never flashy, but a song like The Trains are Gone proves that he can move past simple strumming patterns to pull off some impressive licks.
When additional instrumentation does appear, it is always of the traditional country variety (slide guitars, harmonica), and it is always in the background, this diversifies the record’s sound enough to keep it thoroughly interesting. The best example of this is on the standout track Wild Dogs which features the mournful playing of a steel guitar which matches Colter’s lyrical reflections on the transience of youth. The use of percussion is very minimal and only appears on a few songs to add an extra kick, and even in these instances it is very restrained. But even without these extra adornments, Colter’s melodies and clever presentations of characters holds up on its own.
While the musical quality of the album is strong, what really makes Songs of the Plains great is its style and execution. The very sound of the album conjures up picturesque images of the prairies, open skies and worn-out men; and it captures a diverse set of emotions from the joyous closer Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail to the sadly desperate Manitoba Man. The stories that are told on this record are similarly diverse and vivid, Saskatchewan in 1881 is a highlight in this regard, as it humourously showcases the animosity of many Western Canadians towards their Eastern neighbours. Wild Dogs is also a lyrical (and musical) highpoint, and this is where we see Colter at his most figurative, likening the passions of young lovers to a pairing of wild dogs who are only destined to burnout; it is a beautiful song, replete with imagery and supported by effective instrumental accompaniment. The stories and plights of Colter’s characters come alive through his voice. Rarely does Colter wax-poetic, and this quality allows the lyrics to have a more direct impact upon the listener.
Songs of the Plains may not be the most adventurous or groundbreaking country record out there, but it impresses with its stark honesty and rugged sound. It is a series of portraits of lives that are unremarkable but portrayed with unpretentious sympathy.