Having reviewed albums from bands such as The Deep Dark Woods, The Wilderness Of Manitoba, and The Dead South within the last few months, I consider myself pretty well exposed to music that wears the ‘alt-country’ tag proudly.
So I imagine that fate somehow lent a hand with the current album that has taken prominent place amongst my listening pleasures over the last few days. Hailing from Saskatchewan, the indie-rock act Gunner & Smith recently released their second studio album “Byzantium,” and upon hearing the first few riffs from the opening track “Wicked Smile,” the alt-country tag is stamped all over this sound. Part indie, part country, lots of twang, and completely nostalgic, it was easy to compare their sound with their peers mentioned at the top of the article.
But it would be incredibly foolish to slap on this tag and categorize this band prior to listening to each and every track on this terrific album. Let “Wicked Smile” play through in its entirety and you’ll quickly conclude that there is much more than alt-country being offered here. Backed by some tight musical arrangements, lead vocalist Geoff Smith leads you gently through both verses and choruses, before relenting to some classic-rock sounding lead guitar that makes the listener sit up and take notice.
The following track “Fever” opens with a bass line that sets the mood from the off-set, while the combination of discreet guitar and organ provide the perfect tempo for Smith to deliver this upbeat, yet very retro sounding track. Scratch the ‘discreet’ from the lead guitar as the song progresses, and enjoy a dominant guitar vibe that demands your full attention down the stretch. If “Wicked Smile” was more at home on the open Saskatchewan prairies, “Fever” is more of that ‘stadium rocker’ lured by the bright lights and amplified sounds of the big stage.
Continue listening to each and every track on “Byzantium” and you will discover many other influences at the heart of the music, ranging from indie-rock and gritty folk, to hints of psychedelic Americana. From the melodic sounding “Wisconsin” to the haunting “Hush Now” (great harmonies from Rachel Malena-Chan), there is more than enough variety here to earn this album much more than just one listen.
Go ahead and jump back to “If The Light Comes” and enjoy a slow, bluesy introduction that yields to Smith’s well-paced, narrative vocal style. And while the ‘old West’ inspired instrumentation here draws comparisons to the more recent sounds of The Deep Dark Woods, the band once again turn to their signature guitar solo that is part Neil Young, part David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), yet uniquely Gunner & Smith.
Recorded in just a few days at Sinewave Studios near Perdue, SK, the album was produced by renowned Nashville producer Andrija Tokic, whose accomplishments include the breakthrough “Boys & Girls” album from Alabama Shakes. I wholeheartedly agree with one particular statement from the official press release; “Recording the Gunner & Smith sessions live off the floor straight to analog tape, the resulting sounds are both soft and lush, watermarked with the romance, deeply textured soft melodies, pop hooks and explosive choral climaxes.”
And for me, spending a few days with Gunner & Smith has left me with the conclusion that while I have focused on several alt-country acts recently, this band offers up such incredible diversity in their music, lyrics, arrangements and production to separate themselves from their peers within the genre. “Byzantium” is a very impressive sophomore album from this Saskatchewan band, and I highly recommend it to those who like their music to offer up some broody energy complete with a splash of hot sauce on the side.