…You rise from them. At least, that is what Dallas Green is trying to do now that his time with Alexisonfire has come to an end. With Green’s desire to focus his full attention on his acoustic/folk side project cited as the final nail in Alexisonfire’s coffin, the next album from City and Colour is going to be steeped in expectation. Out of fairness to Dallas Green, the final album from Alexisonfire, Old Crows/Young Cardinals, was almost entirely forgettable, and the EP released in the death throes of the band, Dog’s Blood, was interesting but lacking the delicate balance of dynamics featured on their earlier work. And while Alexis collapsed under the weight of its own reinvention, City and Colour was thriving on the success of their third album, Little Hell.
Even with this hard-earned success, City and Colour is not out of the woods yet. There are moments on Little Hell that make me wonder whether the freedom to move into a full band will prove to be a gift or a curse for Dallas. So follow me friends, as we journey through the past of City and Colour to see if we can pinpoint what they should do with all of their free time.
In 2005, the debut album Sometimes was released in Canada to happy, but unsurprised fans. Anybody who was in the know was well aware of the acoustic tendencies of “the guy from Alexis that sings.” Dallas had been releasing individual tracks online for years and he had played quite a few small shows when he wasn’t touring with Alexis. All but one of the tracks on Sometimes were simply refined versions of what many people were already listening to, and they were pictures of perfection for many Alexis fans. This is because many of them sounded like acoustic Alexisonfire songs.
The guitar work on ‘Like Knives’ and ‘In the Water, I am Beautiful’ is nuanced; the constant shifts from softly strummed chords to hurried lead lines are perfectly representative of the lyrics: frantic desperation tempered with fragile resolve. It feels as though Dallas is barely containing an imminent emotional outburst (which eventually erupts in the case of ‘Like Knives’). The emotional resonance is equally present in the simpler tracks, such as ‘Casey’s Song’ and ‘Hello I’m in Delaware.’ On every track it feels like the listener is sitting in a room with Dallas while he sadly sings you in love with him. This intimacy is mostly produced by the minimalism of the record – it is just Dallas singing with an acoustic guitar and the occasional flourish of piano. Only twice do we have a taste of Dallas’s electric skills. And this is exactly what Alexis fans were looking for in this album. Anyone who had seen Dallas play in a bar knew exactly what he could do with just his voice and an acoustic guitar.
2008s Bring Me Your Love was a whole other animal. This album saw a major shift in Dallas’s sound. He was no longer playing electric songs on an acoustic guitar, he was playing full blown folk songs. Tracks like ‘Death of Me’ and ‘What Makes a Man’ show that Dallas is more than capable of playing some very down to earth songs without sounding disingenuous, but what made the real difference on that album wasn’t the change in style, it was the expansion of his instrumentation. ‘Death of Me’ isn’t great just because it has camp-fire appeal, it’s great because of the jaunty mandolin in the background and the playful drumming that bring the chorus alive. ‘What Makes a Man’ isn’t powerful just because of Dallas’s disconsolate vocals, it’s powerful because of the staccato strings that accent the final push of the song.
The expansion of City and Colour’s sound came hand in hand with an expansion of its membership. Whereas Sometimes featured Dallas Green on every instrument, Bring Me Your Love saw Dallas joined by a hefty list of guest appearances that pushed the sound of City and Colour into exciting new territory. The majority of new sounds came from old friends of Alexisonfire, Attack in Black, and in particular, lead singer Daniel Ramano. Not only do Attack in Black members contribute to the full band tracks like ‘Waiting…,’ but they also put forth the brilliant harmonies on ‘As Much as I Ever Could.’ Also, Romano is responsible for the subtle touch of pedal steel guitar on ‘Confessions,’ along with numerous other musical gems across the album. The most notable guest on the album is clearly Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip on ‘Sleeping Sickness.’ His off beat rhythm and bass harmonies provide a strong counterpoint to the vocal work of Dallas. In fact, this song is indicative of everything that Dallas did right on this album. ‘Sleeping Sickness’ was one of the earliest demos that Dallas had made, and its reinvention into a folksy powerhouse was as surprising as it was good.
While the inclusion of multiple new band members worked brilliantly on Bring Me Your Love, I find it to be a bit of a hindrance on Dallas’s 2011 effort, Little Hell. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic record, but it doesn’t capture my attention like Bring Me Your Love did. Songs like ‘We Found Each Other in the Dark’ and ‘Natural Disaster,’ though good, kind of sound, well, boring. They don’t cause me to burst into spontaneous awkward sing-alongs with my iPod in Wal-Mart like ‘The Girl’ did and they don’t cause me to crawl into a ball and cry (also in Wal-Mart) like ‘Day Old Hate’ did. Then there are the electric efforts, ‘Fragile Bird,’ and ‘Weightless.’ While both songs are contagious, they lack the emotional connection that ‘Sam Malone’ and ‘Waiting…’ produced. Of course, the full-band is still capable of great things; the title track is a testament to that. ‘Little Hell’ is as emotionally engaging as anything off of Sometimes and as delicate as anything from Bring Me Your Love, but the majority of gripping moments on this record come from the songs that use the full-band idea sparingly. ‘The Grand Optimist’ is one of the strongest songs that Dallas has ever made, and it comes from the simplicity of the verses. When the percussion and piano enter in the chorus, it produces chills, but only because they come out of nowhere and then disappear as the verse returns. The closer, ‘Hope For Now,’ is equally minimalistic, featuring just a keyboard and vocals for its first half and then clawing and tearing its way to its conclusion with screeching electric guitar and crashing drums. Not to mention that ‘Northern Wind’ is incredible and it only features acoustic guitar, vocals, and cello.
This is the part where you become enraged at my suggestion that Little Hell is problematic. Clearly it is a strong album, and the two or three songs that I have deemed unsatisfactory are just drops in his sweet, sweet ocean. True. What concerns me is what happens now that Dallas is free of Alexisonfire. Where does he go from here? Does Dallas go back into the studio with the line-up that created Little Hell and push City and Colour into a full-fledged indie band? I certainly hope not. I can do without a whole album of ’Fragile Birds.’ Does he elevate Daniel Ramano to equal frontman status and turn City and Colour into a pseudo-resurrection of Attack in Black? That could be interesting (I would love to see Ramano have more vocal duties), but I would hate to lose the intimacy that Dallas had built in the bars of St Catherines. Dallas is at his best when he is at the forefront and the band provides colour and depth to his music.
As City and Colour look towards their next album, here’s hoping that they can find the right balance of sound, or else they may be joining Alexisonfire sooner than planned.