It has been five years since The Dead South released their last album of their own work. There's been a lot happening in that time, both for the band and the wider world. Although Easy Listening for Jerks, Parts I & II surfaced in 2022, this double EP was a collection of cover versions. So, will this new album be a reinvention of The Dead South?
Before listening to Chains & Stakes, I wasn't expecting a massive swerve from the Saskatchewan-based four-piece. This is not a band known for ripping it up and starting again. Instead, they constantly work at their craft and their sound, looking to take it up a few notches each time. Why reinvent the cartwheel when it rolls along just fine and dandy? Of course, I could be wrong.
The Dead South certainly have a loyal fan base. And a diverse one, too. Although their music certainly has a solid grounding in traditional bluegrass, they manoeuvre through various other genres, including folk, country, Americana, shades of rock and a smidge of alternative music. Perhaps this is one of the keys to their popularity across people of various backgrounds, experiences, and ages. It may also be, in part, due to their lovely hats.
We start the voyage through this 13-track album with 'Blood On The Mind'. This is an excellent introduction to the Dead South sound as they let rip with their punchy style of bluegrass mixed with a hint of Barenaked Ladies lurking at the back. Nate Hilts vocals rasp over gorgeous banjo rolls, leading to an outbreak of most infectious foot-tapping. Someone, please pass me my moonshine!
The simple melody of 'Yours To Keep' hides a dark tale. With an understated banjo and guitar, this feels more like a rock ballad than bluegrass. "Walking tipsy, briskly from the scene of the crash/It felt too good how high you stood it would not last/You broke a few hearts... a couple promises too/Left arm, Left leg, your Eye socket's blue, oh/Will the throbbing in your head ever stop?/The taste of blood encased in mud - it aches on the top", Hilts delivers in his distinctive style.
If you want an example of some superb banjo-picking, Colton Crawford delivers this, and then some, in '20 Mile Jump'. Prepare your finest yee-haws as you are hit with a fierce sonic burst. It's like The Pogues soaked in bootleg whisky and washed in a clear Appalachian stream. It's a song all about the love and lure of alcohol trumping the love of a good woman, an addiction that will stop after the next bottle… but we all know it won't.
'Where Has The Time Gone' gives us a little break in proceedings. One of three short instrumentals on this album provides the listener with a palette cleanser. It also allows The Dead South to demonstrate their musical prowess as here we are gifted with a beautiful, soulful track proving these boys are not one trick ponies.
In a fine demonstration of how they blur the music genre boundaries, 'A Little Devil' is as close to a pop song as you will likely get from this Canadian outfit, blended with their Appalachian sound. A song that mixes love, religion and questioning faith, Hilts vocal is packed with emotion and is musically aided with a sound full of passion.
"One day at the neighbours, I caught a flare/I fell in love with that Norwegian glare/We had a hippy, a cowboy and a scholar/Little tomboy and a toddler too", narrates Hilts as we are regaled a story of the love and importance of family in the cradle-to-grave 'Son of Ambrose". A full-on country song, channelling their inner Willie Nelson, Danny Kenyon's cello adds an enticing richness to this track. I don't know how they do it, but despite a paired back range of instrumentation and the addition of vocals (they do some wonderful three-part harmonies), The Dead South can create a sound full of emotion and songs that draw you in and take you hostage.
'Clemency' is the second instrumental included here - a wistful, melancholic and forlorn musical interlude. It stops you in your tracks after the previous two full-on foot stompers. Brought back to neutral gear, I'm now ready for the next leg of my Dead South road trip.
With a rock ballad flavour, 'Completely, Sweetly' revolves around a catchy banjo riff. That isn't something I've ever said in a review before! A song with an epic feel, the middle section goes into a classic rock vibe but with a banjo, acoustic guitar and a tambourine. You really must hear it to understand what I mean.
In 'A Place I Hardly Know', we are treated vocally to a rat pack-esque crooner undertaking gentle bluegrass with a smear of rock 'n' roll. It's an unusual mix that merges into a great track. You certainly absorb the feeling of loneliness as the song's protagonist drifts from town to town.
We return to a more traditional bluegrass-meets-folk offering with two key aspects as its focus – Mama and bacon. I'm sure there haven't been too many songs that are so bacon-centric. "Mama loves her bacon, she loves it every day/I love her so I'm making sure it's just the way she likes it crispy sweet/Slip them slippers on your feet/Mama it's time to eat/Come and get your morning meat", Hilts hollers. Now, far be it from me to take a seemingly innocently porcine-themed ditty and take it down an innuendo-laced alleyway, but I doubt I will be the only one who detects an alternative subtext in this song. Not suitable for vegetarians or vegans.
The Dead South then tackle the issue of insurance scams in 'Tiny Wooden Box'. It is not a traditional theme for a song, but they aren't a traditional band. Delivered in a minor key, the song has a sorrowful, despairing feel. The final instrumental is 'Yore,' a beautiful banjo melody that leads nicely into the final track, 'Father John.' This is a thoroughly sinister conclusion to the album examining the abuse of power for personal gain. It's the sort of ballad you could imagine Johnny Cash singing in his distinctive, gruff voice.
"Rumours on the street/Well, I hear they're coming true/That filthy man he caught 'em/Put 'em on a noose/Cause every word he said/The people ate out of his hand/With just one crying word/You could be dead", spits Hilts as he tells the story of this vile man of the cloth. It's a brilliant piece of storytelling in the country/folk style delivered in true Dead South style. It's a superb way to end an album.
Messrs. Hilts, Pringle, Kenyon & Crawford, ably assisted by co-producer Jimmy Nutt, have delivered an excellent fourth studio album that builds on their previous efforts. It has serious moments and some fun elements and is pulled together with great musicianship. The nature of their music leaves them nowhere to hide. It is clean, raw and unadulterated. Whilst you will no doubt find your favourite tracks amongst the thirteen on offer, you will be drawn to listen to Chains & Stakes in its entirety more often than not. The running order flows effortlessly as you are swept along with the musical current.
I could give you a rambling diatribe, espousing how good this album is and how it makes me feel. It would be easier if I said this: After listening to this album once, I immediately ordered it on vinyl (remember to support your local independent music stores, kids!). It drew me in from the first few bars and held me there until the last notes of the final song. I can't think of a greater compliment.
If anyone needs me, I'll be ordering a Vaquero/Buckaroo style hat, cowboy boots and a Colonel Sanders-style neck-tie.