One Hundred Dollars - "Fires of Regret" (Outside Music)
Arriving three years after One Hundred Dollar’s excellent debut, Forest of Tears, Songs of Man finds the Canadian alt-country outfit trading in its acoustic guitars for electric and veering toward more rock-oriented territory. The new elements in play on Songs -- which was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize last month -- owe much to the increasing prominence of electric guitarist Paul Mortimer (formerly on bass), who also joins vocalist Simone Schmidt and acoustic guitarist Ian Russell as songwriters here. Pedal steel player Stew Crookes returns as producer, but opts for a denser, more fine-tuned sound than that of Forest which was recorded live. This change in approach is something of a mixed blessing. While it allows the band to further refine its sound, Songs lacks the immediate impact of its predecessor, particularly as Schmidt gets buried deeper in the mix, her voice obscured behind more effects and reverb. On the other hand, it demonstrates a greater range, complexity, and when it connects, comes off beautifully.
Opening track “Ties That Bind” displays both sides of the coin, as Schmidt belts over an uptempo minor-key tornado of acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar that threatens to overwhelm her, as though she’s competing with the rest of the band. Too often, her voice and words are difficult to make out, which is a particular liability for One Hundred Dollars. Schmidt’s vocals do the lion’s share of the work in delivering emotional impact. She performs — as on the first album, often in character — like a method actress, carefully calibrating her delivery without ever coming across as contrived or false. As musically satisfying as they may be, the album’s densest and loudest tracks (“Fires of Regret,” “Black Gold”) threaten to leave her by the wayside, and leave one longing for the clear, punchy sound of the debut. The album fares better when the sound thins out, as “Where the Sparrows Drop,” and “Waiting on Another,” on which Schmidt and Mortimer are given space to play off each other rather than fighting for the spotlight. At other moments, the band delves into poppier territory (“Everybody Wins”) that seems a far cry from the rough-hewn debut, proving that they can be more accessible without sounding overly commercial or formulaic.
Such shifts in musical direction demonstrate the band’s flexibility and range, and Songs of Man as a whole proves that One Hundred Dollars can match the strong storytelling and songwriting that marked its debut with equally impressive arrangements and performances. The attempts to thicken its sound are not unproblematic, as the denser, louder direction threatens to diminish Schmidt’s ability to connect, but the problem perhaps lies more in the recording and mixing than in any truly musical shortcomings. While One Hundred Dollars may still need to iron out some production-related kinks, Songs of Man finds the group largely delivering on the promise of its debut and hinting at stronger works to come.