Siskiyou – Keep Away the Dead

January 01, 1970

(Constellation)

 

www.cstrecords.com

 

On Keep Away the Dead,
the follow-up to Siskiyou’s impressive self-titled debut, Colin Hubert and Erik
Arnesen expand their instrumental palette (and the band to a four-piece), though
the hues remain predominantly dark. The narratives still deal with heavy topics
(c.f., the title), and still revolve around simple acoustic guitar, banjo or
piano riffs washed in subtle synth drones and splashes of keys, horns or
strings that act more like candlelight than sunlight. No wonder, really — recorded
during the dead of winter in a cavernous, century-old wooden community hall in
tiny Mara, B.C. (pop. 350), the songs are one with their environment. Yet in
such cold surroundings, moments of warmth arrive with life-affirming
brightness, and that’s what makes Siskiyou’s music memorable.

 

In this, Hubert shares traits with another Western Canadian,
Neil Young. Like his forebear, Hubert’s striking country-flavored numbers seem
populated equally by vast, cold expanses and fire-hearth warmth. His quavering,
adenoidal vocals also recall Young. Rather than run from the connection, Hubert
does the wise thing here by embracing it and making his own. The beautiful
country waltz “Dear Old Friend” — with its slowly plucked banjo, strummed
acoustic and lonely pedal steel-fills — could have turned up as a Harvest b-side without anyone raising an
eyebrow. 

 

Even when he tackles Young head-on with a stunning remake of
“Revolution Blues” from the 1974 classic LP On
the Beach,
he pays homage without bowing to tradition. Where Young’s
version captured the chilling Manson Family story in fairly straight-ahead
rock-song fashion, aided by David Crosby’s gutsy guitar fills, Siskiyou slows
the pace, trades banjo for the guitar, and opens the verses to more sinister
dynamics. The quaver in Hubert’s voice turns to creeping paranoia, capturing
the fear that would-be musical hanger-on Manson elicited from the Laurel Canyon’s
arts community even prior to his killing spree. Like the best cover songs, it
recasts our view of the original, treating the song as a living entity instead
of a museum piece.

 

Hubert may sound like Young and acknowledge the influence,
but Siskiyou is no Crazy Horse retread. The droning synth-buzz and
piano-atop-organ processional “Not the Kind,” an ode to people “who don’t smile
when they’re told to smile,” could be cousin to Micah P. Hinson’s forlorn work,
and the title-track, with its background of coruscating electric guitar and cymbal-crashes,
sounds like early Phosphorescent. If there’s an Achilles heel here, it’s that
some songs seem headed toward crescendos that never arrive. And when contrasted
with one that does, like the marvelous “Twigs and Stones,” one of the LP’s most
forlorn but redemptive moments, these track suffer some in the comparison.

 

Opening with a two-note acoustic riff colored only by a sad
and distant French horn, the insistent refrain of “Twigs and Stones” — “I’ve
got love to give and give and give and give and give and give” – reads like the
plea of a desperate man with no takers. Here, though, when the pressure builds,
a slew of guitars and horns – the latter all played by labelmate Colin Stetson
– erupts in heraldic choruses that take on the primal force of “storm-clouds”
and “mountain ranges.” It’s a stunning three minutes, luminous enough to nearly
blot out the bowed cello, banjo and white-out synth ambience of “So Cold” that
follows. It’s a release so transcendent, in fact, that it makes you wish
Siskiyou did it more often. For now, though, it remains a provocative future
path for a band whose emotional honesty and moody sonic vistas overcome its few
shortcomings.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Twigs
and Stones,” “Revolution Blues” “Dear Old Friend” BY JOHN SCHACHT

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