Musicians love the Sadies. Everybody from hipster-approved guys like Steve Albini and Howe Gelb to iconic vets like Ronnie Hawkins and Garth Hudson drool over the band's singular interpretation of "cosmic American music," to steal Gram Parsons' famous phrase. What's more, the Mekons' Jon Langford, the lovely Neko Case, and noisemaker Jon Spencer have all enlisted the Sadies as their backing band at one time or another.
Music fans and critics, however, are another issue. Although the Sadies have developed a small but rabid following since dropping their 1998 debut, Precious Moments, most buzzmakers have treated the Canadian quartet like a three-star hotel while turning Gram-children like Ryan Adams and Beachwood Sparks into chic Waldorfs.
But it doesn't bother the Sadies that they aren't blessed by blogosphere tastemakers, says guitarist Dallas Good. He and his bandmates stand by their music — in particular the group's latest and best album, last year's New Seasons. Good realizes that in rock and roll, expert craftsmanship and quiet dedication — both of which the Sadies embody — aren't sexy, while artists attached to prefabricated images and bizarre behavior always are. And that's a damn shame. What folks have been missing over the past decade is the evolution of country-rock's most vital band since the early-'70s California scene spawned several of them.
Now for clarity's sake, we're not talking about all that alt-country No Depression stuff — Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Old 97's, what have you. We're talking Bakersfield with a fat joint stuck in its mouth — the West-Coast-gypsy-cowboy-are-you-ready-for-the-country vibrations of the Byrds, First National Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and so on.
Of course, the Sadies aren't the only artists to wander down this legendary road. Ryan Adams crosses it with frequency, while the excellent Long Ryders and even-better Jayhawks knew it extremely well. But Good and company are the first band to really rise above the dreaded "retro" tag and match their heroes in terms of skill and vision. Whereas the Jayhawks — who were awesome, no doubt about it — always sounded a little too in debt to Parsons' Flying Burrito Brothers and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-era Neil Young, the Sadies have opened up vintage West Coast music to foreign sounds by fusing Byrdsian jangle and radiant pedal steel with raunchy garage rock, jagged surf runs, and epic soundscapes. "What we're doing is merging styles we like in a relatively coherent way," says Good.
On New Seasons, which is produced by ex-Jayhawk Gary Louris, this process reaches a new apex. Not only are all the seams concealed; the group cakes everything — including Good and brother Travis' high-lonesome harmonies — in deep reverb. The end result is a haze of psychedelic static that only adds to the album's themes of loss, entropy, and more loss.
But what ultimately sets the Sadies apart is the Goods' twin guitar attack. As the sons of Bruce Good — who, as a member of the Good Brothers, actually jammed with the Grateful Dead and New Riders in the early '70s — Dallas and Travis aren't restricted to strumming the same three chords. Instead, they pick like a couple of bluegrass virtuosos, weaving in and out of one another with a seemingly psychic understanding of each other's individual styles. This opens up the music to richly woven textures and a sort of multitiered approach to rhythm.
All this wonderful fusion hasn't always been the case, however. Up until quite recently, the Sadies schizophrenically hopped from genre to genre like a stuttering jukebox. As Good points out, you can actually program the band's older albums to hear only the surf Sadies or the neo-honky-tonk Sadies or the garage-rock Sadies. And even though the group hinted at bringing it all together on 2002's Stories Often Told and 2004's Favourite Colours, Good credits Louris with inspiring them to unite their disparate interests. "With Gary, we basically have an extra band member," he says.
In essence, the Sadies made eight records before really blossoming. ("The longer we do it, the better we get at it," says Good.) That sounds like a long time, but most bands lose it after two albums. In fact, California country-rock is littered with celebrated one-album wonders and drug-addled underachievers — including some of its greatest artists: Beachwood Sparks, moody Gene Clark — and, of course, Parsons, who set the precedent with two solo albums followed by an overdose in the Mojave Desert.
The Sadies are effectively reaching the second act that many of their heroes never saw. And if New Seasons is any indication, it's going to be a great one. Who knows? Maybe someday we'll be calling this stuff "cosmic Canadian music."