Sun June 22, 2014
First Listen: Corb Lund, 'Counterfeit Blues'
Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 11:46 am
Now that home studios and laptop rigs enable musicians to document their music with minimal travel, the recording environments they choose have increasingly become part of their art. Like destination weddings, part of the point of destination recording sessions is immersion in particular environments. When the sessions take place at a 20th-century pop-music pilgrimage site like Sun Records in Memphis — from which Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash famously launched their youthful careers in the '50s — there can be a fair amount of reverence, replication or self-mythologizing involved.
That was much more clearly the case with U2's Sun sessions for Rattle and Hum a quarter-century ago than it is with Corb Lund's Counterfeit Blues, an album made at that same hallowed spot in conjunction with a CMT documentary titled Memphis Sun. While Lund's lead guitarist, Grant Siemans, occasionally geeks out on screen in the doc, Lund plays it laconically cool. But every member of the ensemble — bassist Kurt Ciesla and drummer Brady Valgardson round out Lund's Hurtin' Albertans — is into the idea of roughing it, vintage-analog-style. We see the four circle up in one room, photos of legends looming over their shoulders, and churn out heated, hard-swinging grooves with no way to keep any one player's parts from bleeding into everybody else's microphones, and no means of making mistakes disappear like magic after the fact. They're on a mission to capture the songs live and whole. "We do things like they used to do them," Siemans notes with pride.
Lund and his band are also doing things like they used to do them — that is, reinterpreting songs that appeared on Five Dollar Bill and Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, albums the Canadian singer-songwriter released in the early '00s, before he signed with the New West label and doubled down on building an audience in the U.S. It's a different story for Lund north of the border, where he came up tending livestock, transitioned from punk band The Smalls to roots-country in full view, and saw those two albums certified gold in Canada (which, for the record, requires about a tenth the sales of U.S. certification).
The closest Lund comes to paying tribute to the rockabilly mojo of Sun Records on Counterfeit Blues is "Big Butch Bass Bull Fiddle," a rollicking number written from the perspective of a long-suffering upright bassist, with ample opportunity for Ciesla to show off his string-slapping chops. Mostly, though, Lund sticks to his specialty: those songs in which he spins boisterous yarns out of the mundane muck of agrarian existence. Call it ranching roots-rock, stocked with the sort of tangible detail — the sounds and smells of rodeos, remote landscapes and roughnecks for hire — that can only come from paying close attention to your surroundings.
Lund shows his cowpunk roots in the way he resists romanticizing these rustic scenes, unfurling storylines in his adenoidal twang with drolly affectionate bite. Here's a guy who'll punctuate dusty, down-home vignettes with a sharp little hook like "Good Copenhagen / is better than bad cocaine." In "Counterfeiters' Blues," he even takes aim at his own inauthenticity: "The worn-out western hat I've got no longer smells like horse / I can't afford to keep one around and the rooster's gone, of course / I guess I've left it all behind me now, except for when I write / and sing ancestral praises of the ones who knew that life / Years of rock 'n' roll have extracted quite a fee / Maybe them old counterfeit blues have been creepin' up on me."
If Lund were preoccupied with coming into the house of Presley, Lewis, Perkins and Cash and striving to rock like they did, you'd be able to tell. But between the grounded irreverence of Lund's songwriting voice, his band's untamed (yet not at all unsophisticated) attack and the live-wire reverberation they got using this throwback recording approach, he captures the spirit of Sun Records in a way that feels utterly unfussy and immediate.