Details, sharp as nails
Poking through my skin like jimson weed
Nathan Winnipeg. No place else other than a prairie city would anyone know what Jimson Weed is. But now you do, because Jimson Weed, Nathan's sophomore record and inaugural Nettwerk Records release, fairly reeks of it. Not the plant, dude, the city - Canada's gateway to the prairies, and current home to a flowering of northern musical talent not seen since the heyday of Toronto's Yorkville in the 60's. As bandleader Keri McTighe puts it, â€œWinnipeg is cheap to live in and full of creative people. I think it lets people be weirder, since we're not in a big competitive marketplace.â€?
The product of this febrile music scene, Nathan has coalesced around the haunting songwriting and singing talents of Keri McTighe and Shelley Marshall, augmented by Devin Latimer on bass, Daniel Roy on drums, and an assortment of accordions, tubas, pianos and steel guitars that seemingly dropped by for dinner and made themselves useful. A Lethbridge native, Keri had been drawn to the 'peg's circle of musicians, eventually hooking up with Christine Fellows to form the acclaimed band Special Fancy in 1995. Meanwhile, Shelley was putting those accordion lessons from childhood to good use with Hugo Torres's group. It's perhaps a testament to the petri-dish properties of the Winnipeg music community that an accordionist in a Chilean folk-protest combo (Shelley) would end up rubbing shoulders with experimental popsters like Keri & Christine. â€œOnce you get in the circle here it's pretty hard not to know everybodyâ€? says Keri. Shelley only had a couple of rehearsals under her belt when Special Fancy split up, but she and Keri kept getting together for writing and practicing (or rather for â€œsmoking and drinking lots of wineâ€?, as Keri puts it), and eventually they were able to rope in Keri's partner Devin on bass to form what would become Nathan in 1999. And theneverything just clicked.
Stranger, their cool indie debut of 2001, garnered the band critical raves and festival plays across the country, including a slot as regional finalists on CBC TV's â€œBig Breakâ€? national talent competition, and a Prairie Music Award for Outstanding Independent Album. Critics stumbled over themselves trying to pin down the band's appeal: â€œCompletely compelling. Imagine Julie Doiron and the Carter Family jamming with gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks...[but] that isn't quite itâ€? wrote Mote Magazine, echoing reviewers from the Ottawa Citizen, the Georgia Straight, CBC Radio and others who lauded Stranger as one of the top 10 releases of 2001. â€œI write a fair number of reviews and interviews, and I'm seldom at a loss for wordsâ€¦the best bittersweet pop songs in this part of the world. (Rob Vaarmeyer, New Winnipeg.com).
One can forgive the critics their tongue-tied ness. Nathan songs are slippery things, seducing you with gorgeous harmonies, circus rhythms and waltzes from the rag-and-bone shop of traditional country music, then knocking you sideways with razor-sharp lyrics that come from some dark, other, Tom Waits-ean basement. Stranger's â€œPick Me Up Suzieâ€? might come on with the sing-song cadences of a jump-rope song, but the details poking through your skin on third or forth listen are images of daddy wrapping blankets â€œon his chewed up daughterâ€?, or images like the angelicized corpse in â€œMerritteâ€?, whose stab wound holes â€œsink in like a silver shine coin / with a wish just madeâ€?. As Michael Wrycraft put it on CBC Radio's Bandwidth, "If David Lynch had directed 'O Brother Where Art Thou?, Nathan's music would be the soundtrack".
But even though this kind of stark imagery gets all the press, Keri & Shelley's songs are ultimately more concerned with disguises of one sort or another - some gleefully assumed, and some worn so long that the wearers are lost inside them. Listening to the new record, Jimson Weed, one is constantly bumping into characters either in search of their motivations, or in search of ways to disguise them - either they're blindly following â€œa terrible want [that] whispers right in to the emptiest places under your skinâ€? (â€œBig Galootâ€?), or they're readily eloping with â€œa suitcase full of all my bad ideas / going to test them out, see what I have been missing all these yearsâ€? (â€œBad Ideasâ€?). The roadways in this record are clogged with people coming and going with their baggage.
And of course, the radio's on the background to all this, and it's playing waltz's, train rhythms, two-beats with reggae accents, with high hook-laden harmonies, and you're singing along before you know it. Contributing to your seduction is the fact that the band members are clearly having some serious fun doing what they do, as anyone who has seen one of their tribal live shows, replete with home-made stage outfits, will attest. â€œShelley and I love to sewâ€?, says Keri simply, as if that's all you need to know. And perhaps it is.