REVIEW: Radiogram: All the Way Home
Radiogram: All the Way Home [Endearing, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? Dry Canadian country
Perhaps it's a bit unfair to ask for authenticity in alt-country. Back in the days of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, the music was that much more powerful because these musicians lived it as well. They grew up with country, blues and traditional folk from which they spun their own tales. Is it really fair to ask for the credentials of Neko Case or Jeff Tweedy? Perhaps not, but when I'm listening to a Wilco album, I hear influences and not merely cribbed country cliches. The best of alt-country musicians combine country with punk, indie rock and even experimental music sensibilities, creating something new, sweet and refreshing.
All The Way Home, released in early 2002, had the misfortune of meeting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the New Releases calendar - and YHF was an album that smashed what was left of the conventional-and-stale alt.country scene. Wilco took the genre further, and at the same time made the most sincere record of their career. Wilco made a modern country album, full of sad and wonderful stories of the city - accompanied by some of the most interesting sounds and production techniques this side of Radiohead. That same year, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash released new albums, each redefining traditional country music. Johnny Cash, as he had shown on his three previous American Records albums, was willing to embrace the songs of modern songwriters (as wildy diverse as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Sting, Soundgarden, Trent Reznor, and Nick Cave), interpreting them with his own trademark style and creating something exciting.
It is the lack of life humming in the songs that makes Radiogram's sophomore effort so plain. Frontman Ken Beattie may have the ability, but straining his voice into a country twang, monotously trudging through cliched "sad country soungs" isn't the way to prove it. It's not a terrible album by any stretch, but it is a frustratingly ordinary one. The only highlight comes toward the end of the record, with the folky, upbeat "Love Vigilantes." Here, Radiogram takes a chance and makes something special: it's a lovely song, combining folk and pop elements and taking full advantage of Shelley Campbell's beautiful backup vocals, heretofore kept oh-so-low in the mix. Following this cut, however, it's back to retreding the much-trod-upon field of depressed country antics. And it's stale.
Ken Beattie and his Radiogram colleagues definitely have the skills, but in order to stay current they are going to have to take some risks. The days of simply playing country music and riding that novelty alone are gone. Here's hoping that on their next release they stretch their wings and come out of the pigeonhole.