Album Review: Northern Passages by The Sadies

“Alternative” is probably the only way for Apple Music to define The Sadies, as their latest release Northern Passages cannot be defined as simply rock, folk or country.

Released on February 10th, 2017, Northern Passages is The Sadies’ 10th studio album since their debut album Precious Moments in 1998. Despite being together now for more than 20 years, the Toronto rooted band remains the same in almost all aspects of their music. Still consisting of singer and guitarist brothers Dallas and Travis Good, bassist Sean Dean, and drummer Mike Belitsky, what is the most strikingly similar to me is the band’s sound. Just as Precious Moments did in 1998 as press release says, the Sadies’ newest album encapsulates the same “wild acid-folk-country-punk trip.”

The album is opened with “Riverview Fog,” a warm and heartfelt folk ballad. Beginning with soft acoustics and a light drum in the background, listeners can immediately identify this song with The Sadies’ previous works. “Hello old friend, I hope I didn’t wake you. It’s been a while since the last time that I saw you,” sing The Sadies in soft and raw vocals accompanied by subtle harmonies. In a letter-like fashion, this song addresses the band’s fellow Canadian musician, Rick White, who had previously worked as a producer for The Sadies. “Riverview Fog” captures the band’s admiration of and friendship with White. Through this opening track they recall some good memories from the past and suggest to White that they want to work together again: “if you wanted to I’ll come up there and play.” However, they don’t push White into anything that he might not want to do, as they address his “quiet getaway.” “Riverview Fog” works well as an introductory track. Although with research I learned that The Sadies are addressing their old friend, after my first listen I felt as though The Sadies were speaking directly to their listeners with a warm welcome back after four years since their 2014 Gord Downie and the Conquering Sun collaborative album. Singing that listeners are “where [they] need to be,” which is listening to their new release, is simply more reassurance to keep listening for what is to come. “Riverview Fog” shows off The Sadies’ roots from the start, keeping it down to earth while singing to their friend about the past in their soft-spoken folk-sounding style.

There is a lot I can’t quite place my finger on through Northern Passages, from The Sadies’ classification of genre to what the album is truly about. However, perhaps that is exactly what The Sadies had planned while making this album: using their wide ranging skill and expertise this album holds all of the band’s diverse influences in a unified testimony. The second track contrasts the first track entirely and this further displays The Sadies’ variability. After a soft fade out of “Riverview Fog,” “Another Season Again” is an abrupt shift that catches listeners off guard and even made me doubt that this track was performed by the same band. Opening with a quick paced tempo and an electric guitar in full swing, The Sadies’ voices even sound altered as they are much more assertive and not as soft-spoken as they were in the introductory tune. This second track is definitely rock oriented and the quick beat and rock-feel continue into the third song of Northern Passages with a similar head-banging drum and guitar. “There Are No Words” is about not being able to find “all of the right things to say.” This track ends just as differently as “Another Season Again” begins: unpredictably. By the three-minute mark of “There Are No Words,” what originally sounds like a mid-song electric guitar solo gradually quiets down into a slower tempo and twangy country ending. This unique adjustment through the song works well because it warms listeners up for what is to come.

The next seven tracks are seemingly more of a mixture of country, rock and folk sounds that The Sadies have done in the past. Although often times their work seems a bit at a standstill due to the limited vocal range and lyrics that might not be considered next level, the harmonies and uniqueness of The Sadies’ sound is captivating. “The Elements Song,” the fifth and longest song on Northern Passages, stands out to me the most due to the cheerful tune and harmonies that are not as subtle, slow or soft spoken as some of the other songs such as “It’s Easy (Like Walking)” or “The Good Years.” Despite not being as raw sounding, this track still sounds original and definitely not overdone. From the very beginning of this five minute and twenty-one second song, The Sadies’ harmonies remind me of the Barenaked Ladies’ iconic harmonies. “The Elements Song” singlehandedly displays the band’s true charisma as here they are working very well together. This track is a perfect hybrid between rock and country/folk music and perfectly sums up what I imagine The Sadies to be all about.

The closing track, “The Sound Museum,” once again catches me off guard. It begins soft and country sounding with only acoustic guitars intricately plucking but immediately becomes rowdier as drums and electric guitars suddenly accompany the acoustic sounds. This closing song has no vocals which surprises me, especially as a closing statement, however a remarkable statement is still made. This final track displays The Sadies’ true capabilities as it shows their talent and their focus. “The Sound Museum” can be compared to a museum as its melody paints and exhibits a stunning portrait of The Sadies’ mixture of rock, folk and country effortlessly.

The lack of overdubs and post-production throughout Northern Passages gives me more of an appreciation for The Sadies’ true performance here, especially upon learning that the album was fully recorded in the home basement of the parents of the Good brothers in Toronto. The band’s true sound is unleashed and there is a certain respect and appreciation gained by the listener knowing that this album captures The Sadies true, unedited, sounds of pure, raw talent. The Sadies refuse to be classified as one genre and through this collaboration, their uniqueness cannot be forgotten.

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