"Lift me out of this dustbowl and
hand me a champagne"
Key Principles, Nathan
JUNO AWARD 2008
What is western
music? Is it the sound of the wide open plains or a smoky saloon? Tales
of taciturn men and long-suffering ladies who cry tears in their beer?
Or has that tradition been replaced by something more complicated,
where horses have become fast cars and saloons are now strip malls, but
even in the most urban setting, there's the restless, rough-and-tumble
feel of a frontier town, and everyone still yearns to get the hell out
of Dodge sometimes?
It's that kind of
west that Nathan taps into on their third album, Key Principles. The
Winnipeg band, singer/guitarist Keri Latimer,
singer/accordionist/banjo-ist/guitarist Shelley Marshall, bassist Devin
Latimer and drummer Damon Mitchell harness the essence of the Canadian
Prairies in the same way songwriter Jim White puts his finger on the
idiosyncrasies of the American South. From John Paul's Delivery, a
nostalgic ode to sneaking out of the house to "campfire fuelled by some
old fence / skies like planetariums," to Trans Am, whose gentle thrum
is the sound of small-town restlessness ("This is not a great escape /
no miles to go no distance gained / the foreground bends to let me by /
it knows I won't leave it behind"), Nathan documents the paradox of
places that are somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
It's a sound the band
has been honing since the release of their 2001 debut, Stranger,and
refined on their sophomore album, the Juno-nominated Jimson Weed, which
brought home awards and garnered critical kudos across North America.
For Key Principles, however, Nathan wanted to uproot their rootsy sound
a bit. To that end, they enlisted producer Howard Redekopp (New
Pornographers, Tegan & Sara), who introduced an expansive sonic
palette that helped the band navigate the line between their
two-steppin' tendencies and their pure pop passion. There's room here
for Brill Building melodies, Kurt Weill cabaret and Tex-Mex mariachi.
The banjos are balanced with horns; the twang is tempered with a little
Theremin and the cantering rhythms are accented by handclaps.
That's not to say Key
Principles is slick. In an age of push-button music, Nathan's songs
feel endearingly, alluringly homemade (a philosophy that goes farther
than just the songwriting -- consider the quilts hand-stitched by Keri
and Shelley that decorate the stage at live shows and serve as
evocative album art). And the homey feel follows through to Key
Principles' subject matter, which often centers on the idea of domestic
That's no surprise.
Family can't help but influence on the two songwriters, as Shelley is
mother to a toddler and Keri was seven months pregnant while recording
the album. But in true Nathan fashion, that domesticity has a dark
side; in every dream home a haunting. It's a darkness that's belied by
the clear, sweet voices twining around each other like ivy, but below
all the sun-dappled leaves reaching upward, there's a twisted, gnarled
root that burrows into dark places "So heavy-hearted / you've been
combing the carpets / turning over the couches / ear and glass to the
wall," they sing in Secrets.
But that duality is a
big part of what defines the Prairies, after all: darkness and light.
And Nathan captures it all, the modern, old-fashioned sound of the
lonesome, crowded west.