Album Reviews: Chris Altmann and The Spades

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Today we take a look at the last two releases in the Seventh Fire Series, Seventh Fire Record’s record-of-the-month club, featuring 7″ singles of new music from local artists. Check out our reviews of Chris Altmann’s Home & Away and The Spades’ Live From The Narrows.

Chris Altmann

The first album up is October’s release, Home & Away by local country singer-songwriter Chris Altmann. Altmann certainly knows a fair bit about homes and aways, dividing his time between homes in Peterborough, Nashville, and his native home of Melbourne, Australia. But this album is also about metaphorical homes; about the people, the places, and the ideas that make us feel comfortable and safe, and what happens when those places are lost.

The Australian Altmann has always shown an interest in music from the American heartland, and the album’s first song, “Walk On (You’re Slowly Heading Home)”, is a full-on gospel song, sounding like it’s recorded straight from a black Southern Baptist church somewhere in Mississippi. In it, Altmann cautions us that people may deny a higher power, because they don’t any evidence of it, but “When the minstrel sings a song / And your friends have travelled on / And lonely is the only thing you feel / … / Then shall you know what is real.” The subject matter of the song is matched by its style, with a big, echo-y church sound, the use of an organ, and even an honest-to-god gospel choir that shows up for the chorus. It’s Altmann in full preacher mode, with a specific religious message he wants to communicate directly to you, the listener. That may be off-putting for those who don’t agree with the sentiment, but the message is delivered with passion and sincerity, and it certainly is a comforting one. No matter how far away from home we are, or how lost we are, or how bad things seem, Altmann reassures us that, in the end, we’re all still “slowly heading home.”

Just as “Walk On” is a soaring and aspirational song about finding home, the record’s b-side, “I Know This Isn’t Right,” is an pained, angry song that gets down in the emotional muck. It describes, in devastatingly specific detail, the narrator’s nasty divorce, when the ‘home’ he had built with his family and friends all came crashing down. We hear about the former couple’s bickering (“We don’t talk anymore / That’s what we use those lawyers for”), about the narrator’s depression and alienation from his friends, and about the painfully short one day a week the narrator now has custody of his son. I’m not certain if Altmann speaks from personal experience, but hits with the emotional punch of a true story when Altmann sings, “Now I get up in the morning / Just before the sun is dawning / Waking from a nightmare that I know won’t go away.” (Actually, I can’t help but feel that the Altmann-narrator of this song might benefit from a reassuring talk with the Altmann-preacher from the last song.)

The music reflects the emotional change from the last song. The quieter, more intimate “I Know It Isn’t Right” gets an appropriately smaller sound and simpler instrumentation, prominently featuring the subdued, plaintive tones of a slide guitar. It’s a dramatic contrast between songs, but both styles work for the different messages Altmann’s trying to communicate, and it certainly shows off the range of his work.

Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most notable features of Altmann’s October release – namely, the fact that it’s now mid-November and club members still haven’t received their copies yet. According to Seventh Fire, there have been technical problems at the record pressing plant, so it’s not their fault, exactly. They have made digital copies of the album available to Series members, so the music is out there – but that’s somewhat cold comfort to those who signed up for the series to get their music on physical records for a change. Now it’s way too early in the series to draw any conclusions from this, especially since it’s only happened once. However, with such a long delay so early on in the series, let’s just say that it’s not exactly an encouraging sign – and we’ll leave it at that.

The Spades

The Spades have been on a bit of an interesting journey recently. For a while, the band was a very active presence on the local music scene. However, it’s been months since their last show in town, and Live From The Narrows marks the first new recorded music from the band since 2010’s Subatomic. In the meantime, the band’s been busy. Bassist Chachi Robichaud started a new band, The Wild Wild North, and released an album. Lead singer James McKenty helped produce albums for big names like Cuff The Duke, The Sadies, and Blue Rodeo.

But the band’s main work in the past couple years has been helping to promote the local music scene here in Peterborough, and that deserves a bit of special recognition. Through Pirate Radio Records, and then Seventh Fire Records, and now the Seventh Fire Series, the boys from The Spades have helped record, produce, and distribute new music by Melissa Payne, The Express and Co., The Wild Wild North, Chris Altmann, and Tarantüela. Now, finally, they’re helping themselves, in the Seventh Fire Series’ November release, Live From The Narrows.

The record’s first track is “49 Tons,” a cover of a Fred Eaglesmith song with the volume and the intensity turned up several notches. The song has long been a prominent feature of The Spades’ live show, and it still has the feel of a live song. After a short, creeping build, the song erupts into crashing cymbals, a big guitar solo, and those rapid-fire staccato vocals McKenty’s so good at. And it entirely works for the song’s obstinate, defiant lyrics. “49 tons of diesel locomotive wouldn’t drag me back to you,” McKenty screams in a song that’s either about a police stand-off or a crazy ex, or more like, a bit of both at the same time. It’s the band at their most rock’n’roll, and it’s great to hear again.

Like Altmann, The Spades’ second song is a quieter, more emotional piece. “The Unknowns,” according to the band, is “a reflective song which comments on the current state of The Spades.” The band’s certainly been on an interesting journey (see above), but those looking for earth-shattering insight may leave disappointed. If “49 Tons” is a defiant statement about still being in control, “The Unknowns” is about serenely surrendering yourself to the unknowable mysteries of life. “I will feel the push and pull / I will yield to the unknown,” a zen-like McKenty sings. Apart from the bittersweet final lines of the song, “I will feel every pain and every low,” The Spades are just floating down a river, along for the ride. And the song reflects that, taking on the form of a wandering stream. It has a slow, laid-back rhythm, it never really goes anywhere, and it has no particular direction or destination in mind – but it’s an interesting trip none the less.

One final note: For what it’s worth, Live From The Narrows did not encounter any production delays. It shipped on time and arrived right when it was supposed to.


James McKenty photo by Scott Dancey. Other images courtesy Chris Altmann, The Spades, and Seventh Fire Records.

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