Every now and then, when casually searching for new music, something completely new and unexpected crosses my path. Often cursed with a relatively short-attention span when skimming through music and choosing to listen or skip, it only took a few lines from the opening track found on “Hanging On,” the latest album from Pretty Archie, to remove my fingers WELL away from that skip button. From the opening “Ain’t No Saving Me,” to the ninth and final track, “Sometimes,” this stunning release not only grabbed my attention, but held it for the duration, and maybe a few spins more than a blogger with a short-attention span ought to confess to.
Hailing from Cape Breton, NS, Pretty Archie certainly know that it takes something special to stand out from the folk-roots pack in this particular region of the Eastern provinces. With so much talent firmly established in the Maritimes, the bar is set (unfairly) high for NS artists looking to break out from the herd, yet with “Hanging On,” Pretty Archie can be heard loud and clear. “At some point in life, everyone experiences mixed feeling about where they’re at, where they’re going and where they come from…we are no exception,” the band explains. Formed originally in 2012 as a jam band, long time friends Brian Cathcart (guitar/vocals), Matt McNeil (guitar/mandolin), Colin Gillis (bass/harmonica/vocals), Redmond MacDougall (banjo/percussion/vocals), and Scott MacLean (guitar/mandolin) chose the name Pretty Archie after a locally known Cape Breton street performer.
Go ahead and start with “Ain’t No Saving Me,” and you’ll quickly determine that Pretty Archie are not shy about their jam-band roots and desire to mix serious subject matter with some lighthearted mirth. With a blues-laced tempo, the track opens with the lines, “I went down to the river landing, where the preacher man was standing, I asked if he could spare a prayer to two.” And that’s all the seriousness you’ll find here, as the tempo increases to deliver the remainder of the verse (and song) with some tongue-in-cheek gospel, “He said, ‘Son you’d done some sinning, too much drugs and booze and women, and there ain’t a goddam thing I can do.” Distinctly Maritimes in flavor, for me, this combination of folk-rock with a little country charm draws comparisons to the likes of The Tractors and The Dead South.
Fun and frolics aside, it takes exceptional musicianship to be a successful jam-band, and Pretty Archie have no shortage of such skills in their arsenal. Go ahead and check out the outstanding mandolin and banjo picking that introduce “Stay The Same,” a superb bluegrass number that combines the lyrical nature of Ryan Cook with the sounds of The Slocan Ramblers. The authenticity of Pretty Archie is heard consistently through each and every track on this album. “Everything we write and sing about is real life for us, but the same things happen to everybody in every walk of life,” the band offer. “Being honest and authentic is something we’ve always made a conscious effort to be, both lyrically and musically.”
Another key ingredient for a jam-band is their ability to mix up their sound, and Pretty Archie comfortably switch back and forth between musical styles with a natural ease. The band offer a wonderful folk-pop ballad that will transport you to the sounds of the seventies one moment (“Summer Love”), then crank out some outlaw country that will satisfy fans of Steve Earle the next (“You Better Run”); the latter offering similarities to the recent (and fellow Nova Scotian) Jimmy Rankin track, “Thin Ice,” for me.
During a road trip this past weekend, the retro sounding rock ‘n’ roll track, “The Whole Town,” happened to burst over the airwaves. Inspired by their hometown, as well as the people who inhabit it, the track dwells on the socioeconomic changes that have impacted the city. “That’s the east coaster in us,” offers Colin. “Cape Breton went from being an industrial hub when our parents were growing up to having next to no work, and that’s impossible to ignore when we’re writing. It’s a big part of growing up here.” Offering a throwback sound that I had not heard since discovering the music of Nick Faye and the Deputies last year, my flamboyant finger tapping against the steering wheel for the duration of this track clearly indicates just how serious, yet radio-friendly this band can be. I encourage any fans of Nova Scotia music to add “Hanging On” to your 2019 listening pleasures.