Here's a big, and exciting surprise from the New Brunswick folk duo. The couple (John and Lisa McLaggan) are fun and full of happy energy, and have rightfully won a strong reputation for their positive, upbeat tunes and performances. However, they were also in danger of becoming a novelty act, with their bare-bones setup; just the two of them, his guitar and her washboard, plus that unending cheerfulness. But as this new album shows, there's lots more depth coming to the fore these days.
Enter Nashville producer Jon Estes, who has worked with everyone from Kesha to Dolly Parton, Robyn Hitchcock to Loretta Lynn. He brought the duo into his studio, and brought a whole new light on all their considerable talents. It wasn't a case of Nashville pros propping them up, but rather a sympathetic producer recognizing their unique abilities, and challenging them to do their best work yet. Lisa McLaggan has stepped up with her best-ever vocals, signing with power and confidence. Her husband's songwriting has never sounded better and more varied.
Variety is a key on the release, with the songs going in several directions, from the thumping rock of You Don't Know Anything to the soulful twang of the title cut to the breakup ballad I'll Keep The Frame. John McLaggan's lyrics have followed the cheerful path in the past, but there's a new edge in several of the songs. The couple arguing in a hotel lobby in You Don't Know Anything are truly pissed, he's abusive, but her resilience and courage wins the day. It's about as far from the couple's real life as we can imagine, and good for them, stretching to show there are a lot more tricks to this pony.
While they brought all the goods needed, it is great to hear them surrounded by some fine Nashville players, and all manner of roots instruments. Estes could have gone for a mini-Mumfords sound, slapping on the banjo and organ and made it like a thousand other bands, but instead the 12-track album keeps surprising, even including some searing electric leads.