Many of you already know just how passionate we are about all things Elliott BROOD here at Team GDW. Make no mistake, we are not going to hide our love for the music from Mark Sasso, Casey Laforet, and Stephen Pitkin, who are quite possibly our favorite Southern ON alt-country trio out there on the North American music circuit today. Having had the pleasure of catching Elliott BROOD live on several occasions, a quick glance at my previous concert recaps highlights a notable common theme in my musings: “Trust me when I state that this band has to be experienced live.” – “Words alone are inadequate for describing their live show.” – “This trio have a well-deserved reputation of being one of those bands you just have to see live.” Hopefully, post-pandemic, the opportunity to enjoy seeing these guys live again shall return.
We caught up with the trio last November for a show, and learned that they were working on some new music. Being fortunate to see them perform again this past February (our only Canadian excursion this year – thanks to Covid), our attention was elevated upon hearing them drop the words, “New album.” And with the release of “Stay Out,” their first new single back in July, came the formal announcement of their seventh album, “Keeper,” which Elliott BROOD release today. Their first since “Ghost Gardens” in 2017 (although the trio did release a digital-only version of their Massey Hall concert earlier this year), it is fair to say that we’ve been jumping at the bit to get our hands on this one. Having kept this new album playing solidly on repeat for the last week or so, I shall succumb to the cheesy pun and state that this latest studio piece is an absolute “Keeper.”
Self-produced, and engineered by Stephen Pitkin at The Office in Hamilton, ON, “Keeper” sees Elliott BROOD deal with the past in more personal terms. Per their press release: the title, which speaks to loyalty and longevity, sets the tone for an album that explores the strength of conviction, and how that strength is tested, again and again, over time. “It’s one of those things where somebody see flaws in you, but they still love you, and still give you a chance regardless,” shares Mark, in describing the album title. “And for me, that’s a Keeper. You’ve gone through all this shit in your life…and you decide that person is still worth keeping around, still worth fighting for, still worth going the distance for. You’ve gone so far in life with that person, it’s worth it to make that effort, it’s worth it to save something, and I think in life right now, people cast stuff off so easily in relationships, and things ARE worth fighting for.” Thoughts of worthiness and dedication, and their emotional flip sides, inform a collection that sees the band exploring those battlefields much closer to home. “Keeper [is] packed with evocative tales conjoining myth and mystery with vivid reality,” Stephen adds. “Compare our stories with your own as you plot your way from beginning to end.”
Opening with the current single, “Bird Dog,” Mark’s banjo riffs and Casey’s retro electric guitar rhythms really kick off this party. With additional mixing by Sylvia Massy (Tool, Johnny Cash), “Bird Dog” boasts a great up-tempo beat that refuses to ease the pressure from the gas pedal, painting a capering tale of a hot pursuit across the Great Smoky Mountains. “Well son of a gun / We’ve got them on the run / This time we’ll smoke them out / And bring them to justice now,” recites Mark, taking lead vocal duties on this opener. “You see they killed three men / And fleeced their kin / And then crossed into the Carolinas / They say there’s word that they’re hurt / And hiding out in the mountains in the mines.” “Well, Bird Dog is just like a companion, that’s what ties it,” Mark offers. “Maybe that dog is flawed, or the human is flawed, but they come together and they actually maybe make something better being together.” When the lines between those who chase and those who run get blurry, the song reminds us that in partnerships we are seldom only one or the other. “Runnin’ out, well they’re runnin’ out of space and time / And I don’t know if we’ll get out of here alive / Come on out with your, come on out with your / Come on out with your hands held high.”
Progressing to the second track, which happens to be their first single, “Stay Out,” I’m still smiling when I hear this “mandolin driven foot-stomper,” complete with Casey’s buoyant, carefree chorus. This is a song about when and why we find our ways home, and weighs the fleeting elation of recklessness against the deeper ties that bind. Having spent a lot of time listening to this one since released in July, I am still in awe at the well-timed inclusion of horns down the stretch, courtesy of Michael Johnston. And the more I listen, the more I fall in love with that catchy chorus: “It’s the end of the road / It’s the end of the old road / It’s the end of the line and it’s time that I let it go / And the seasons change / Everything gets rearranged / But tonight I’m stuck in a yesterday haze.” Such a stunning metaphor crafted with those final words: “But tonight I’m stuck in a yesterday haze.”
Never one to be predictable or formulaic with their music, Elliott BROOD share two numbers that have roots in music from past generations. “No Way Out” certainly offers a little 1950s throwback vibe, an old school slow rock n roll number perfectly suited for dancing up close and personal with your prom date. “Been running off the rails like so many times before / It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door,” recites Mark, accompanied by vintage guitar riffs and harmonies from his bandmates. There is plenty of retro charm and appeal to be found with Casey’s “Out Walkin’” too, a country and western inspired ditty, complete with crackles and other era-appropriate effects. “The old man reluctantly invited me to supper / Some time to recover and get a little rest / He pointed to his daughter and told me that I couldn’t / I promised that I wouldn’t but you know what happened next,” Casey sings, clearly enjoying the tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and joined by some equally amazing harmonies from Mark.
Those of you that have already heard the digital release of their live Massey Hall recording are familiar with the addition of pedal steel on a handful of their previous tracks, courtesy of friend and guest multi-instrumentalist Aaron Goldstein. It seems fitting, therefore, that an alt-country trio are wise to embrace some haunting pedal steel into their repertoire, and invited Goldstein into the studio to work his magic and add extra depth for a few of these new tracks. The slow banjo intro to “A Month Of Sundays,” a track that tackles the fallout after too many harsh words being said, is joined by gradual hints of Aaron’s expressive steel to really help establish a conciliatory tone. “If we weren’t family would we still be friends / Will I be seeing you less and less?” are the questions asked during the chorus. “Did you get any of those letters I sent? / Will I be seeing you less and less?” Slow and moving, the track benefits from some wonderful splitting of lead vocals between Mark and Casey, before both combine to deliver their proven collective harmonies once more. Add some deep guitar hums and piano low notes, and “A Month Of Sundays” offers hints of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ soundtrack. “What’s going round is coming round / What’s going round is coming round / What’s going round is coming round.”
If you are looking for one of the hidden gems on “Keeper,” I strongly suggest “Merciless Wind” as a standout track worthy of many repeat plays. Not only for the stunning pedal steel cries that Goldstein effortlessly adds once more, but Mark’s muted banjo notes and some incredibly dramatic piano keys that fit perfectly within the context of this song. Offering a deeply moving homage to a soldier leaving a loved one to go fight a war, Casey delivers a 5:31 masterpiece that harkens back to their highly acclaimed 2012 “Days Into Years” material: “He was a shy one / And she told a lie once to give him the courage to go / She said that she loved him and the good lord above him / Would see that he found his way home.” Oh, those dramatic piano keys that follow a momentary pause, accompanied by both gentle banjo and steel that prepare you for the realization of our hero’s fate: “He got shot down on a cold piece of ground / And he thought of those words when he died / He knew that the little woman waiting back home for him / Was all that had kept him alive / Through the merciless winds and those murderous nights.” Memories of Elliott BROOD’s trans-Atlantic journey to the battlefields and cemeteries of Vichy are clearly still resonating today as inspirations behind the tales they strive to share, with Casey offering that an alternate “Neil Young inspired” version of this track may be considered for a future release.
Clocking in at 6:51, “Full Of Wires” is the epic centerpiece of this latest Elliott BROOD album. Opening with the familiarity of their traditional sound from the get go, the lead vocal duties are handled here by Casey once again. Yet the subject matter here is not as light and breezy as the tone suggests, tackling instead family relationships, and the push and pull of gratitude and conflict. Where “A Month Of Sundays” presented a picture of saying too much, “Full Of Wires” concentrates more on choosing not to leave things unsaid: “Walk a mile / Walk a mile in her unfaithful shoes / Step outside / A little while outside that point of view / Reconcile / Make amends with them who took from you.” The song halts nicely mid-stream, where acoustic riffs, mandolin licks, and slightly muted keys and cymbal crashes bounce across your speakers.
“Full OF Wires” is vintage Elliott BROOD at their absolute best, kicking back into high gear with an explosive, moving bridge: “Cause we don’t know how much time we’ll get / If there’s a maker to be met let it be from my own bed / Don’t let the sounds in my head be the hum of machines and those hospital regrets / Just don’t let me wind up dead / Full of wires and an empty heart.” But wait, there’s more! Don’t skip the lengthy solo to close, lest you miss the inclusion of strings and chants from the boys, complete with a slight reprise featuring more amazing piano and sentimental strings. Props to Sylvia Massy, and additional engineer Daryl Neudorf (Neko Case) for their vision and mixing skills here, leaving us questioning if we are still tuned into alt-country or a classical orchestra – those lines becoming blurry once more.
I opened this review reminiscing on our live encounters with Elliott BROOD, always proud to state that their performances are some of the best musical parties you are likely to attend. And yet while good fun, it is often easy to lose track of how meaningful and well written their compositions truly are in that live moment. I highly recommend listening to this album from beginning to end, uninterrupted, free from distractions, and preferably through headphones (if you have them) to absorb the wonderful sonic experience being presented. I made a reference to their “Days Into Years” album earlier too, which I consider to be the quintessential Elliott BROOD album; not only their finest to date, but one of the greatest Canadian albums of the modern era. And while their subsequent releases remain consistently great in their own right, none have challenged that ‘benchmark’ status of their 2012 release – at least until now. Go ahead – toss your cries of “Shock” and “Horror” at me, but having spent a lot of time in the company of “Keeper,” I am confident that after hearing this one on repeat, you’ll be hard pressed to convince me I’m wrong.
“Keeper” is an outstanding collection of songs from Elliott BROOD, and while I hate tipping my hat early, is a serious contender for my album of the year; a lock for my top four, that’s for sure. No matter where you buy your music, I don’t care. Whichever digital platforms you subscribe to for streaming music, I don’t care. All I care about right now is making sure that everybody spends some time in the company of this amazing new record. “Keeper” is out today, via Six Shooter Records. “And the seasons change / Everything gets rearranged / But tonight I’m stuck in a yesterday haze.”