Having clocked countless miles in their decade-long career, through enough endless highways and stuffy studio sessions to fill an epic documentary, the songs of multi-platinum-selling artist Blue Rodeo have cut a wide path in their native Canada. But after such hit albums as FIVE DAYS IN JULY and NOWHERE TO HERE, the band found a way (as well as a need) to reinvent themselves, and their music.
"For TREMOLO, the band had no knowledge of the songs before we entered the studio," says songwriter-vocalist Jim Cuddy. "We just went in without a lot of rehearsal and cut a song a day. We get too caught up in ideas and conceptualizing when we think too much. Our instincts are pretty good. If we go with that it will be something we'll all like. We did very little talking this time. Otherwise, we're six individuals with very different ideas about music. So we trusted our intuition. First thought, best thought."
This off-the-cuff approach reinspired the band and put them back on the road to surprise, to that space where Blue Rodeo excel. Recorded after a year off doing solo projects, TREMOLO sparkles with intimate details that glimmer, glow, and almost slip by unnoticed. Little, eclectic moments of musical finery like the string quartet solo in "Disappear," what sounds like a backwards guitar break in "It Could Happen to You," or the Nashville-meets-Pet Sounds wonder of "Frog's Lullabye," where dreamy strings swoon over crying guitars and a choir of mating frogs.
Other songs benefit from this intuitive approach in less obvious, but equally rewarding ways. After the darker paths of Nowhere to Here, Blue Rodeo found themselves ready for a lighter touch, while still blending the introspective with the outwardly sunny. From the opening, front porch swing of "Moon and Tree," with its sparkling banjo cross talk and pedal steel quickstep, it's apparent that Blue Rodeo has found a new groove to kick up the dust. "I Could Never Be That Man" is irresistibly upbeat and rolling, while "Falling Down Blue" tells a lover's tale with the kind of grace and beauty that practically leaves Blue Rodeo in a class all their own. With the band trading instruments to unusual effect, the song seems to float in space, timeless and lovely. In a similar vein, "Beautiful Blue" unfurls slowly like a morning fog, wandering delicately over an echoing piano, while "Brother Andre's Heart," a surreal story of a preserved heart, bruised knees and a hallucination, shows Blue Rodeo's sense of humor remains intact.
"We've grown more confident in the whole process," says Keelor. "We just went in the studio and began with no arrangements and the songs just kept piling up. We never had a chance to fuss with them. That was nice. This is a real band record, it's not dominated by the singer-songwriters. We were more relaxed this time."
While Webster's defines tremolo as "a tremulous effect produced by rapid reiteration of the same tone," the title seems to fit all the musical cracks and crevices Blue Rodeo create, those unmistakable flashes that appear when the band's collective unconscious takes over the proceedings.
"Everything becomes metaphorically resonant," muses Cuddy. "Somebody said when we were all wearing headphones, 'Tremolo, the breath of electricity.' That really is what a record are like. Some songs are exhalations, some are like inhalations. We got mesmerized by the concept, that tremolo was a gathering principle for all the songs we were going to put on this album. It's also a word that most people outside the record industry have never heard of."
Blue Rodeo songs exist in that weird slope between country and rock, with a healthy dose, at least conceptually, of psychedelia. Where other bands might drive a song on all fours with obvious signposts to bridge, verse and chorus, Blue Rodeo always find a unique side-road to explore.
"There is a certain frequency of introduction of new ideas in each song," says Cuddy. "That's pretty consistent on TREMOLO. Unlike the last one, we're not trying to create a mood then move around a little within that mood. Now we're actually trying to change texture frequently. There was a great sense of energy in the room while we were recording."
What with the new wave of county-folk-punkers gaining their own moniker, No Depression, Blue Rodeo's brand of country rough-and-tumble seems to fit the genre. Not quite.
"We come from more of a psychedelic pop background," explains Keelor. "The imprint of songs for us is related more to 60s pop than country music. We came to country after all that 60s music was already in our minds. We put banjo [not to mention Chamberlein and Mellotron] on so many songs for the feel, the groove. We're looking for textural changes from that past that are more pop and rock oriented."
"We don't build a song then add on to it," adds Cuddy, describing part of the band's unique sound. "We let something happen then we put support underneath it. If somebody goes off on a solo tangent, it's easier to add support under that. That comes from having enough trust to follow each other."
Twelve years down the road, with six best-selling albums under their belt (Outskirts, Diamond Mine, Casino, Lost Together, Five Days In July, and Nowhere to Here), Blue Rodeo has tackled the challenge of reinvention, of disguising their familial faces, with unusual vigor and success.
"We've come to a peaceful resolution," says Cuddy. "When you're a band for a long time you inevitably suffer from constantly giving your contribution over and then having it altered by the group, where it's rejected, or changed. Eventually people get so pissed off. In the last year we've done our own thing, which was incredibly beneficial. Now we're getting our rocks off knowing that we make a singular sound. That's very satisfying."
"We didn't get so obsessed with details this time," concludes Keelor. "We just played it to friends and made casual decisions. We've labored so much in the past. You can get so nuts you don't have any idea of how it's going to sound six months from now. We were a lot more playful this time, and the result is a lot more enjoyable."