“If David Lynch had directed ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?,’ Nathan’s music would be the soundtrack.” – Michael Wrycraft, CBC Radio
Two women and two men.
Acoustic and electric guitars, 6-string banjo, accordion, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, drums and percussion, piano, organ, some horns (trumpet, French Horn, and tuba) – even the eerie howling sound of a theremin, a motion-sensitive synthesizer. Add some Appalachia to the pot and throw in a little jazz – a dash of country, Tex-Mex, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and some cabaret for good measure.
That’s the Canadian band Nathan. No wonder they’re hard to categorize. One thing is not hard to figure, though – this is some seriously good music.
Nathan’s debut album Stranger was released independently to much acclaim in 2001, and won a Prairie Music Award for Outstanding Independent Album.
Their second album, Jimson Weed, was released three years later on the Nettwerk label, and it’s a gem. The first thing you notice from the opening lines of the album’s first song, “Sunset Chaser,” is the unforgettable, slightly quirky, but oh-so-endearing voice of Keri McTighe. Shelley Marshall joins in with some harmony, and the two voices twine around each other like ivy, creating what The Music Box describes as an “ethereal, otherworldly beauty that crosses effortlessly from the Andrews Sisters to the Indigo Girls, from the Carter Family to the Be Good Tanyas.” Their voices soar happily in contagious, upbeat melodies that belie the complexity of the lyrics, often dark and filled with hints of unfulfilled yearnings, resignation, inner secrets, and murder.
Nathan is a foursome consisting of singer/guitarist Keri (McTighe) Latimer, singer/accordionist/guitarist Shelley Marshall, bassist Devin Latimer and drummer Damon Mitchell. They are all Canadians from Winnipeg, in the western prairie province of Manitoba. As such, their music has a home-made feel to it, conjuring up visions of domestic life on the western prairie where the inhabitants’ lives are spent raising families and tending to the home-front. That philosophy of domesticity can be seen onstage, where the band performs in front of a backdrop of quilts hand-stitched by Keri and Shelley (which incidentally provide some nice cover art for the bands’ CDs), and where the girls appear in performance costumes they have sewn. But the songs they sing, despite the cheerful delivery, reveal that all is not necessarily as it appears. It’s reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. This is a place where, as one lyric describes, “rocking chairs fall off their porches.”
Not that Nathan sings of people long since buried. These are songs of ordinary people very much alive, coping with the here-and-now and trying to live in a post-modern world as best they can – like a neglected woman who imagines her stoic lover working himself up “in a fiery anger” at the news she is gone, demonstrating a passion she never saw (“Sunset Chaser”).
Another song counsels us to “bind our longings in barbed wire electric fence” (“Lock Your Devils Up”), while yet another touts the advantages of plastic surgery before you’re left behind “waving your arms while the pit of your heart fills with fear” (“One Spend”). This one is a delightful toe-tapper with a very nice, too-brief instrumental break featuring a muted trumpet.
Then there’s “Emelina”:
You’re the talk of the town
I hear you burned the whole kitchen down to the ground
But there’s more dignity to that
Than trying to earn our graces back
You’ve got the curse of the bottle
And the worst reputation around.
And, of course, the jimson weed:
Details as sharp as nails
Poking through my skin like jimson weed
Bursting through the astro-turf-plastic-coating
There are wicked wicked truths
And we are happier in our delightful lies
But now it’s out.
Nathan released a 5-track EP entitled “Casserole” two years later in anticipation of their next full-length album. It includes three new original compositions (two of which appear on the new album, and the title track which doesn’t seem to be included elsewhere), plus two excellent covers of Tom Waits and Rogers & Hammerstein. It’s well worth getting.
And if Jimson Weed is a gem, then the followup album Key Principles absolutely bedazzles. If you get only one Nathan record, this is the one to get. It ups the ante lyrically (more than once I have asked myself, ‘Just what is this song about?’). It also musically expands the rootsy soundscape heard on Jimson Weed to include a wider variety of instruments and styles, veering into alternative pop territory at times with the help of producer Howard Redekopp (New Pornographers), who also contributes vocals and piano.
One standout track is “The Wind,” a song in which the theremin evokes the sound of an eerie, howling wind amidst expressions of quiet resignation and surrender. Or is it really about resignation? That’s the thing about Nathan’s songs. ‘The Wind’ could be about a reluctant resignation to conform, but it could just as easily be about a daring resolve to give in to an urge for nonconformity:
The wind is howling at my door
If I run out, I know it’s going to chase me
Every sheet upon the clothesline snapping
And I know that I’ll regret it
But I think I’m going to let it in.
Another is “You Win,” one of the most upbeat, cleverly written breakup songs you’re ever likely to hear. The song is infused with a strong Bakersfield country sound of guitars, but smashes the mold with layers of soaring vocals and a beefy dose of horns that are clearly outside Buck Owens/Merle Haggard territory.
Then there’s the driving beat of ‘Scarecrow,’ complete with handclapping and some mighty good metaphorical lyrics.
“The Boulevard Back Then” expresses the nagging suspicion that modernity is gradually eroding the quality of life, slowly dispelling a tranquility of simpler times almost gone, but Keri and Shelley bemoan this fact in such sweet harmonies it’s easy to forget all about the Armageddon looming on the horizon. The song was picked as a track-of-the-day by Radio CBC in one of their podcasts. (Hear the song in QuickTime on RaisedonIndie.)
Intelligent and thought-provoking lyrics add a bonus to Nathan’s music, but when all is said and done, it is the ear-catching melodies delivered in their trademark happy-go-lucky, quirky and totally infectious manner that keeps me coming back for more listens to this fine and dandy band. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
Jimson Weed received two Western Canada Music Awards, two Canadian Folk Music Awards, and was nominated at the 2005 Juno Awards for the Award for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year. In 2008, Key Principles was named Outstanding Roots Album at the Western Canadian Music Awards and won a Juno Award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year (group).
Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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