Every so often I’m fortunate enough to stumble across an act that forces me to abandon other activities and listen to its work a bit more closely. Sometimes a connection to a song is instantaneous; sometimes it grows over time. Recently, 01, the first release from Americana quartet Dirty Mountain, commanded my attention and refused to leave my head.
A refrain that’s gathered steam among some critical voices is that too many Americana bands sound monotonous and listless, resulting in some of the acts being scathingly labeled as “genericana.” However, in the case of Victoria, British Columbia-based Dirty Mountain, there’s a vitality to the group’s debut. The band’s sound – rooted in rock, country, and blues – is familiar but infused with enough individuality to keep the compositions fresh. 01 is an album that honors Dirty Mountain’s influences while spotlighting the appealing energy and talent of the musicians.
Skillfully produced by Adam Sutherland of electro-pop band LABS, 01 gives Dirty Mountain’s members ample opportunity to shine while maintaining the group’s cohesion. Drummer Tom Salter provides the album’s unwavering pulse that will keep toes tapping in agreement. Bassist Gord Light’s dynamic close harmonies propel the songs forward while lead guitarist Lane Ardnt adds blistering flourishes that contribute to the recording’s vibrancy and poignancy. Frontwoman and songwriter Elli Hart’s (Ellisa Hartman, also half of rootsy duo Hart + Stone) vocals are pure but not overly polished, confident and soulful without straining.
Hart’s written voice is equally intriguing. Driving debut single “Ashes” begins 01 with a jolt. The slightly sneering opening couplet (“You don’t know what a broken heart is/You’re not man enough to finish what you started”) is a matter of fact indictment. Voicing a temptress “who can reduce a man to a burning coal”, Hart unapologetically sings of desiring revenge against the man who’s jilted her for a life of domesticity. Listeners are left with feeling the narrator is motivated more by scorn than genuine heartbreak even as they get caught in the song’s infectious groove.
01 offers up additional surprises. The jaunty instrumentation of the cautionary “Down and Grey” provides an interesting juxtaposition with the bleak subject matter of a railroad worker overwhelmed by debt and personal responsibilities. While the assertion “Trouble’s got him down and grey” initially refers to the protagonist’s depression and aging, his inability to escape his circumstances eventually leaves his body “down and grey”, buried beneath an oak and decaying.
Arguably the album’s most affecting moments occur when the songs’ characters grapple with either their own imperfections or those of loved ones. The narrator of the ballad “Water & Wine” who “live[s] a poet’s dream/a drunkard’s life” is left with only her regrets at the end of the day. Boosted by bluesy instrumentation, Hart’s delivery oozes pain and loneliness.
The narrator of the torchy “Tangled Up Lies” is also disillusioned, albeit with her wayward beau. Referencing “Me and Bobby McGee” (“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose“), she reclaims her life, noting “I’m no longer willing/to carry/the heavy load/you put on my back.” Showcasing Hart’s vulnerable yet determined wail, the song emerges as one of the album’s biggest highlights.
Dirty Mountain’s 01 is an immensely satisfying album and one that needs to be savored over repeated listens. This recording shouldn’t just be relegated to the background. Listeners have to let the songs permeate their hearts and minds. Once they do, they’ll fully appreciate all the care that’s gone into this beautiful debut.