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Oh Susanna | Sleepy Little Sailor (Hot)
There are so many things in favour of great success for Suzie Ungerleider. Firstly, she is blessed with a voice you can only be born with. No amount of training can dilute passion such as pours from this woman. It is a classic Country voice, and a classic Soul voice to boot. This, Toronto-based Ungerleider's third album, has self-penned sleeve-notes that open thus: "My uncle was a sailor with a wide scarred face and a full round belly. He listened all day to the western and country 'cause his soul was too sad for the jazz in the city". In that one sentence, so much other evidence lurks. Look at the language used; this is someone with the literary pull of Jack Kerouac or particularly, Annie E. Proulx. If a book opens like that, you know there's no turning back. So, it's no great surprise that Ungerleider is a wonderful lyricist. What else is hiding? Well, how about a background of rustic tunes, and the dramatic tales of a sea dog to knee-perched, spellbound niece? Although not strictly of a pure country vein, Sleepy Little Sailor bleeds that sadness and arrangements endemic to the genre, and is peppered with references to nautical adventure and the wonder of oceans. So, with these, and so many other qualities in place, it's safe to say that this promises much. Without doubt her most fully realised project to date, the key to this is that much of it, including the vocals, was recorded live in the studio (for the record, owned by The Tragically Hip), so creating an identifiable edge that keeps the listener riveted. With the exception of a couple of square pegs, this is as potentially an important release to Suzie (forgive the sudden formality, but it's easier to type), as Shadowland was to k.d. lang. It attained her massive attention, and inspired by such praise, she went on to create the unique Ing√©nue, still the defining statement in the meeting of Country and Pop sensibilities. Suzie has the brilliance to emulate her compatriot, but rather than being backed by stockbrokers with ponytails in the wrong jobs, she receives support from the Ontario Arts Council. But that is our gain. She has plenty around her and the globe that love what she does, so will always make a tidy living without having to mount the treadmill. Let's look at some songs: The opening title track is immediately reminiscent of Cowboy Junkies ‚?? that aching space, and shimmering, skeletal instrumentation. The pain that Suzie is capable of expressing becomes apparent on only the second cut, River Blue, a classic piano-led ballad, detailing the deep regrets of childhood familial betrayal. The more incisive moments of Sheryl Crow drift to mind, and the song is purified by the glorious tinklings of Bob Packwood's piano. Taking on an Otis Redding song is brave for most but him, but in the inspired choice of I've Got Dreams To Remember, Suzie illustrates that she knows what hurts, and does it full justice with a belting performance. All That Remains is a gothic waltz, with guitarist Luke Doucet's licks straight from the Richard Thompson textbook and the astounding Beauty Boy is full-on dark, bearing a lyric of suffering through the hope that sexual submission will be responded to by love and respect from an abusive partner. It's desperate, and also sensual ‚?? "A treasure chest / under waves of wet / part to reveal / my sweet secret / Take my flesh / steal away my breath / Still a foolish hope follows wise regret." Powerful stuff. Sacrifice boasts another great vocal, but is a mite undermined by the Celtic arrangement. With the tom-toms caressed by beaters, it has that rumble more suited to Clannad, and doesn't suit. Ted's So Wasted is full-bodied Country-Blues, where Suzie's song character snarls her displeasure towards the thing she married; "We walked down the aisle together / while our love took a ride in a hearse." It would be a treat to hear Neko Case wrap her not inconsiderable lungs around such material. Ending SLS is Ride On. I remember very clearly the Select review for Automatic For The People; where it gushed "nothing, but nothing, will prepare you for Everybody Hurts." That statement was of course, most correct and the same can be applied to Ride On, where, over the duration of ten minutes, Suzie mesmerises with a bitter tale of the karmic fall from grace of a prairie drifter. It's a stunning piece of work, and more than worthy of the attention it is receiving. As incredible as it is, it may become her Stairway To Heaven, but if you consider the canon of that particular band for a moment, it shouldn't be a problem in this case, either. So, it's the mythically difficult third album comprehensively conquered in style for Oh Susanna, and her future looks luminous. But do you know what's the most charming fact about Sleepy Little Sailor? There's not a single note of banjo to be heard. Think about it.

Tom Sheriff
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001

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