Anyone who knows me or Jon, the two main contributors to this blog, should probably know that we are fiercely proud of our home province. That’s a large part of why we started Runaway Pup and why we do a lot of what we do with our free time. One of the biggest reasons I love Saskatchewan is her propensity for being an artistic muse. This province has a character that pierces the hearts of the people who live here. You can draw a line from a prairie fencerow directly into the mind of many artists, and the rolling prairie plain leaves space for the art that is made here.
Not surprisingly, B.D. Willoughby’s new record “The Qu’appelle Valley,” a collection of historical Saskatchewan narratives from the area for which it is named, is no exception. Clearly the stories, concepts, and lyrics align directly with the Saskatchewan stories they are portraying. But the connection to the province runs deeper than that. B.D. Willoughby has developed a sound that captures Saskatchewan’s breadth and beauty with nods to her muddled history and continued resilience.
The basis of the sound for the record is built upon pretty much exactly what you’d expect: the band is a straight-ahead country/folk/rock configuration — bass, drums, guitar, keyboards, and vocals, with the regular use of folk instruments like the banjo to harken back to the history the album is capturing. It’s a logical starting place, but they don’t stop there. Every track uses specific and distinct musical elements to capture features of Saskatchewan, each carefully crafted so that we rarely hear the same guitar tone twice or the same instruments used the same way ad nauseum. You can hear the heat of the summer sun in the slide guitar on the title track “The Qu’apelle Valley,” the distant howl of coyotes on the plain in the wailing steel guitar of “The Ballad of E.A. Partridge,” and the pink and purple hues of dawn on the prairies in the washy blend of sizzling ride cymbal and gentle horns on “Sleeping Dogs.” That being said, this record doesn’t just stick to mirroring the picturesque nature of Saskatchewan. The band exercises their freedom to experiment by deliberately choosing to spiral out of control at times: once at the the end of “Part III: Rebellion” to remind us of the violence and terror surrounding the death of Louis Riel and the Riel Rebellion, and again at the end of “Sleeping Dogs,” to show the juxtaposition at the heart of the province. In the early morning sun, when the dogs lay peacefully asleep, we sometimes forget how harsh and inhospitable this province can be; how fraught with terror and hate our history is.
As I said earlier, the musical basis for the album is no surprise. That’s why my personal favourites are the parts of the record that did surprise me. Amongst a gritty folk rock record there are a couple elements of dreamy prairie ambience that speak directly to my heart, to the vision that Saskatchewan has always given me. “Help Me” features an extended intro of gentle, swinging country instrumental that makes me think of a lighter version of something a post-rock or shoe-gaze band like This Will Destroy You would do. The final track on the record, “Sleeping Dogs,” sounds like a modern-day Pink Floyd song with dreamy harmonized vocals and warm, embracing horn parts that spiral out of control in a way that additionally reminds me of Sigur Ros. I think that there is a desire amongst Saskatchewan musicians to capture sound and space in music, which leads them to a variety of approaches to ambience in their work. Whether it’s the dry spring dust or the gigantic night sky, this province provokes within us an awareness of space. Not barren space, but space fitted with beauty. Perhaps a fitting name for it would be something like “fence-post-rock” or “boot-gaze,” but no matter what you call it, it is a part of local music that stirs my heart and keeps me coming back for more.
Normally that is about all I’d have to say about a record like this, particularly because my goal for this article was to address primarily the musical aspects of the record. But because I got a chance to peek at the inside of the record before the release, I have to point out one last thing. Alongside this album, B.D. Willoughby has thoughtfully crafted a booklet featuring all the regular stuff you’d expect: lyrics, photos, musician credits, etc. What is different about this booklet, however, is the narrative and historical perspective provided on each tune as well as on the record as a whole. This record not only chronicles life in the Qu’appelle Valley, it speaks to Saskatchewan’s unique tumultuous history, at many points directly related to the First Nations of Canada. B.D. pledges in his concluding essay: “As the descendants of settlers and as treaty people we are working to ensure we remember this history and work now for reconciliation and the peace and goodwill promised by Treaty 4.” Furthermore, Professor Blair Stonechild of the First Nations University of Canada writes of the album, “This type of CD fits in well with what is called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada – individual efforts to do something to acknowledge the past and contribute towards healing.” There is historical importance and significance in the stories told in this record, but it being made at all is just as important and significant. The record is surface-level enjoyable and pleasant, but there is cultural depth in this album that doesn’t regularly get representation in music of this ilk. And that takes some real courage. If you like the record (and I think you will), look to read a little deeper and accept the challenges put forth by B.D. Willoughby.
Pick up the record/booklet and hear B.D. Willoughby play at the following shows:
May 13 – Fort Qu’Appelle @ The Qu’Appelle Valley Centre for the Arts (QVCA), doors at 7:00 music starts at 8:00. $10 cover. The openers there will be Shane Bellegarde (The Snakeoil Salesmen) and Michael Cardinal.
May 14 – Regina @ The Exchange opening for Black Drink Crier. Both bands are releasing full length albums at the show. Doors at 8:00. Music starts at 9:00. $20 admission gets you both albums too!
June 10 – Saskatoon @ Vangelis (and an acoustic teaser at the Broadway Theatre beforehand at Bill Waiser’s launch of his new book ‘A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905.
Photo Credit: Shawn Fulton Photography