One of the most unique aspects of the Canadian folk music scene is just how diverse this genre has proven to be. From the mainstream to the obscure, there really is something across this spectrum to appeal to most listeners’ musical tastes. One band in particular that leans a little closer to the obscure are the Saskatchewan-based The Deep Dark Woods. It was around the time of the 2009 “Winter Hours” album release that I first heard tracks from this neo-folk rock act; in particular the hits “All the money I had is gone” and the upbeat ‘country’ sounding “Nancy,” that offered up a burst of fiddle reminiscent of the Mary Chapin Carpenter classic “Down at the twist and shout,” and was featured heavily on CBC’s Sonica station around that time.
A few years later I would become familiar with The Deep Dark Woods once again when “18th of December” was given radio airplay during their 2013 “Jubilee” release. Purchasing the album upon the strength of this single alone, it would only take one spin of this disc to demonstrate that the band still possessed their signature sound, but had also taken their alt-country approach a little more literally. This was indeed still The Deep Dark Woods, but the emphasis on both the ‘morose’ and the ‘twang’ had been turned up several notches on their musical dial. Another cut from this album, “A voice is calling,” shared as much an alt-country sound as it did a similarity to the likes of Chris Isaac and Nick Cave. The Deep Dark Woods had found their niche, and were willing to share their somber (yet eerie) brand of alt-Americana.
Heading into the final quarter of 2017, The Deep Dark Woods have returned with their first new material in almost five years. With the publicized personnel changes and differences across their twelve year career, original members Ryan Boldt and Geoff Hilhorst have once again reunited to create the all-new offering “Yarrow,” boasting nine new tracks. I was naturally curious to see which direction The Deep Dark Woods would take with their latest music; the opening track “Fallen Leaves” retains the atmospheric elements as one would expect, albeit with a noticeable psychedelic accompaniment and some haunting backing vocals. As this track fades out to the smooth sounds of a breeze, the alt-country and twang returns for “Up on the Mountain Top,” one of many new tracks that demonstrate “Yarrow” being a natural successor to “Jubilee” as opposed to their earlier material.
For me, The Deep Dark Woods’ biggest strength is their ability to fuse the old country sound with a modern vibe and musical identity. And unlike other artists that have been successful with this approach (The Cowboy Junkies and The Sadies spring to mind), this band continue to experiment and push themselves further with this very surreal, almost gothic, assortment of sounds. For some reason, the alt-country tracks such as “Roll Julia” and “San Juan Hill” conjure up thoughts and comparisons to the likes of the Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone;” that combination of an alt-traditional sound paired with some edgier lyrical content. But go ahead and spin “Roll Julia” again. Indulge yourself in that slow paced lead (twang) guitar, that simple stomping kick drum and tambourine, and allow yourself to be transported to a place where the likes of Cash, Marty Robbins and Buck Owens cross paths with the Saskatchewan prairies.
For those who crave the slower rhythms and mournful tones, you shall not be disappointed – check out both “Drifting On A Summer’s Night” and “The Winter Has Passed.” Not only do these provide the opportunity for Boldt to express and articulate his wounded soul, they also allow the amazing backing vocals from Shuyler Jansen and Kacy & Clayton to really shine. While “Drifting On A Summer’s Night” sees such vocals sharing the spotlight with the dominant and ‘dirty’ lead guitar, “The Winter Has Passed” opts for an acoustic accompaniment that focuses much more upon Boldt’s vocals and the intermittent (yet incredibly haunting) backing harmonies.
Having spent a couple of days listening to this album, “Yarrow” heralds the long-awaited and oh-so-welcome return of The Deep Dark Woods. These nine tracks not only reinforce the musical identity of this band, but elevate their signature sound to another level with both Boldt’s moody delivery and the timing of the instrumentation and wonderful harmonies. There are no ‘filler’ tracks here, making it difficult for me to select one track that stands out above all others. However, as much as I enjoyed the retro vibes of “Roll Julia,” upon reflection, I would lean a little more to the old-western pace of “Birds Will Stop Their Singing.” Opening with Bold’s somber (and solo) vocals, the gradual inclusion of the wonderful harmonies and the twang ‘overload’ down the stretch perfectly portray The Deep Dark Woods at their absolute best. “Yarrow” definitely leans very much towards ‘obscure’ than their previous releases, and for this particular listener, I am more than comfortable seeking out music on that side of the folk-music spectrum. Go ahead and pick up a copy of “Yarrow” today and enjoy this musical ride too.
Listen to “Yarrow” on Spotify (be sure to save the album if you like it)