The Sadies have been nothing if not flexible. The Canadian band might have its family roots in bluegrass, but it draws across the spectrum of Americana even as it dips into garage rock, surf rock and psychedelia. The quartet could have been a lonesome country act; they could have been punks. Instead, they’ve done a little of all of it, sometimes on a single disc, sometimes as genre experiments and sometimes as a backing band (as with their excellent work with Neko Case). The Sadies never seem to peak, riding a steady high for years, but everything changed abruptly earlier this year with the death of singer/songwriter/guitarist Dallas Good, still just 48. The band seems likely to continue, and the release of Colder Streams, while likely to carry some melancholy, shows a group able to be decidedly themselves in any mood.
Colder Streams‘ context gives it a tinge of sadness, but the songwriting brings forward a certain morbidity. Throughout these songs, we see characters who are either trapped or worry about others who are stuck. In the garage nugget “Better Yet,” Good sings, “I only want to help you/ There’s no use in thinking/ I can help you anymore,” but he refuses to admit that none of it matters. When he runs out of words, the big guitar solo kicks in, swirling for a moment before settling back into its place. Despair leaks in, and it finds footholds throughout the record as the Sadies struggle to decide what matters and what they need to care about.
The answer, frequently, is other people. The songs frequently reach out to lend support, but they also acknowledge the need to receive it. “I’m not worried about you/ But you should be worried about me,” the group sings at one point. By taking the lyric away from a lead singer and giving it to the group, the Sadies highlight the communal nature of their work, giving everyone a chance to be the “I” of concern.
That tension between individual emotional health and collective participation makes “No One’s Listening” especially demanding. In the song, the singer escapes responsibility and shame at the cost of deep alienation. When he tries to turn the idea that “I can do what I want/ No one’s watching me” into a slogan, his hurt becomes more visible. The song, with a guest appearance by Jon Spencer, builds on a steady guitar hook as psychedelic touches fill out the sound. Turned a little in one direction, it could be a rocker, but turned a little the other, it could move easily into country (the Sadies’ guitar tones have always helped maintain this balance). Stuck in the middle, it makes its own space, letting the singer twist in his self-created isolation, making for one of the album’s most memorable cuts.
The disc finishes with “End Credits,” which sounds like it was titled for a particular job. The cowboy at the end of this western doesn’t win, and the imaginary film – like the record – lingers in uncertainty. Forward momentum continues, and Colder Streams ends on a big number. It’s hard to find hope here, but there’s at least endurance. Artfully constructed, the album runs through its themes and makes its final statement with a wintry whistle. The Sadies have stretched themselves throughout this release. We can only guess what comes next as we mourn the passing of Dallas Good, but it’s remarkable that the Sadies have made some of their best music nearly three decades into their career.