Best of 2012: It’s better than lying
It’s kind of exciting to see the world catch up to Corb Lund.
Lund has been ahead of the curve for a long, long time, ever since he was involved with The Smalls. I wasn’t cool enough to be into The Smalls when they were still in operation but my infinitely-amazing older sister was an absolute devotee. It took me some time to come around until I realized the majesty and insanity of their particular brand of rock and roll, the wild abandon and experimentation that made them so unique and interesting.
Lund’s venture into semi-solo country terrain was always entertaining, though obviously in a very different way. Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer was beyond fun, the single “Truck Got Stuck” a delightful story-song with a rollicking melody and tone that was implausibly infectious. The album Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier is as good as records get, an unintentionally loosely-thematic album about horses, war, and what happens when you put the two of them together. The interpolation of the lead-off track “I Wanna Be In The Calvary” alone makes the album all but essential, never mind the fact that there isn’t a bad song in between those two tracks.
But to hear Lund tell it Cabin Fever is his high-water mark. And not only in sales, although it did debut at #1 on iTunes Canada and charted #1 on the Neilsen Soundscan readings for a few weeks. The record was conceived in a cabin after a long-term relationship shattered and a close family member died. But this album isn’t any kind of Bon Iver shit. Even though it’s one of Lund’s darkest albums in over ten years it’s still stuffed full of his trademark dark humour, a quality that often obscures the heart on his sleeve.
That much is apparent from the get-go with apocalyptic opener “Gettin’ Down On The Mountain” (which has some “salty” language, I might add). It opens with a lot more muscle than a Lund album usually boasts, a strong, dirty, loud two-note lead guitar line that runs through the song like the peaks of the Rockies themselves. Lund positions himself as a “prepper,” the people who are expecting a catastrophic event to fundamentally change the way our modern world functions. They’re also actively preparing for how they’re going survive it, usually by heading for high ground that’s isolated enough that it would be hard for someone to find you. “Don’t wanna be around when the shit goes down,” he sings, “I’ll be getting down on the mountain.”
That sort of gallows humour permeates Lund’s work, more than ever here. “Dig Gravedigger Dig” is an account of the unique existence of the titular character, a singularly-focused fellow who “plants corpses all day.” The wailing harmonica in the back of the mix and the shouted off-mic response vocals from the players make for a rollicking number with a hint of danger, as though it were a band of outlaws banging out the tune around a campfire late at night. The outlaw angle is played up big-time on “Bible On The Dash,” as Lund and Texan Americana artist Hayes Carll duet on the benefits of pretending to be Christian when the traveling musicians get pulled over in certain areas of the Bible Belt. “It’s better than these work visas I keep on buying. It’s better than an envelope stuffed with cash,” they insist in the chorus after Lund’s drawl pronounces “Gideon” as “Gid’yin.” “Cows Around” is one of the silliest songs I’ve heard from Lund and only the second popular song I can remember that’s all about cows. Lund’s rancher side comes out in spades as he wonders aloud why city folk wouldn’t want to spend all their money on a boatload of hooved companions. “What else can make the bishop swear like a sailor might? What else can cause such tension between a man and his wife? What else could ever bring all these enhancements to your life?” He then fires off a remarkably thorough list of every breed and brand of cow conceivable. The guy does his research.
Lund and the band go full-on classic country on “Drink It Like You Mean It,” a timeless C&W drinking song that seems like it could’ve come straight off an old Merle Haggard album. Everything from the electric slide guitar to the lyrics to Lund’s vocal phrasing and melody are from a bygone era. “Drink it like you mean it to the bottom of the glass,” he sings in equal parts sass, challenge, and sarcasm. The ripped-from-the-headlines “Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner” also begins with a bit of downright-Appalachian yodelling that is performed as earnestly as yodelling probably can be.
The complete opposite of those traditional country elements can be found in “The Gothest Girl I Can,” which features a drum beat straight from a Squirrel Nut Zippers track and some choice surf guitar highlights. He drops priceless lines about “vampire chic” and “rockabilly pompadour” hair-dos while weaving a classically irreverent laundry list of qualities he’s looking for in a very specific kind of woman.
But Lund’s duality as a songwriter is his ace in the hole; as fun as so many of these songs are when Lund starts shoe-gazing he goes deep. A song like “September” sees his heart squarely planted on his sleeve, representing the underlying devestation that informs the record, the terrible heartbreak that led to Lund’s self-imposed isolation. He lays it all bare, pleading openly with the woman who left him to reconsider on her way out the door, even though the plane ticket has been booked. He laments that a thousand acres in the Rocky Mountains perhaps can’t compare to living “in a lower east side flat.” It’s a tender moment of resignation that contrasts sharply with the more light-hearted songs that make up the bulk of Cabin Fever.
Lund gets even more miserable on “One Left In The Chamber,” the album’s most solemn number. According to Lund the song actually sprung from a co-writing session with Texan Matt Skinner; he says he doesn’t often write with someone else but if this is the result he might want to consider doing it more often. The song apparently grew from the final line of the chorus: “And the one left in the chamber ought to do.” The apparent ‘suicide ballad’ (which is a concept I’m apparently unfamiliar with) sees him listing off a series of somethings; he could be referring to past loves, old jobs, lost friends, horses, cars…anything. “There’s the one I left unfinished,” he begins, “the one I can’t explain. There’s the one in Colorado, the one I wish I had again, the one I broke too easy, the one I couldn’t break. There’s the one I took too much of, there’s all the shit I couldn’t take.” And he goes on, his voice dripping with maudlin regret and malaise. There could be specific examples of what he’s referring to but Lund leaves the collection open-ended enough that the listener can read their own regrets into it. It’s a powerful piece of songwriting that seems nebulous on the surface, but the brilliant descending chord progression gives it tangible emotion that is undeniable.
Lund also went all out by including a “cabin side” to the album in a deluxe version, offering acoustic re-workings of every song on the slate. He must have had a hell of a time deciding how to parse them out, because these songs are so well-written they lose nothing in the translation. In fact his band is so good even the powerful electric guitar riffs that provide muscle to songs like “Gettin’ Down On The Mountain” are just as compelling on an acoustic. Other songs like “Dig Gravedigger Dig” don’t change all that much in the offing. While it doesn’t transmogrify every song back to front it provides a really terrific bonus for superfans to break down and absorb. It’s that kind of generous offering that makes Cabin Fever the gift that keeps on giving.
And really, that’s just Lund in a nutshell. The guy has songwriting in his blood and he works impossibly hard to hone his craft. He has an eye for detail, he turns a clever phrase like nobody else, and he has a singular vision for what country music can be in his hands. He’s written maybe the best album of his career and the fact that it’s proven so successful is a testament to the inevitability of hard work paying off.
As a bit of a side note I’d like to mention that when I reviewed Lund’s last CD I was a little bit harsh about it. Looking back I’m not sure why; generally I don’t let things like packaging and record labels influence how I process music. Looking back at it now I guess it’s not surprising that he took the time to set me straight a little bit in the comments. I owe him an apology for that, even if he never sees it. Sorry Corb; I’ve learned my lesson. You deserve better!