It was my first day back at work in a week and a half after a very relaxing holiday. I was dreading my inbox, but everything went pretty smoothly, all things considered.
Disc 849 is….Five Dollar Bill
Artist: Corb Lund
Year of Release: 2002
What’s up with the Cover? I would have liked this take on a five dollar bill but the picture of some kid riding a bull just didn’t appeal. Also for an artist that is so quintessentially Canadian, how come it has to be American money?
How I Came To Know It: Although this is a fairly early Corb Lund record, I came it late. I already had some alternate versions of the songs on “Modern Pain” and other albums appealed to me more when I was digging through his back catalogue. Eventually it was one of the only ones I was missing, and so purchasing it became inevitable.
How It Stacks Up: I have eight Corb Lund albums. Of those eight, “Five Dollar Bill” isn’t my favourite, but it has its moments. I’ll put it sixth.
Ratings: 3 stars
“Five Dollar Bill” an album that showcases just how much Corb Lund loves tradition, both those of his country and also those of his musical style.
That style is solidly in the country genre, but it is so heavily Canadiana it would be unfair not to add in “folk” as well. In twenty years I expect Corb Lund will be to Alberta what Stan Rogers is to the Maritimes now. “Five Dollar Bill” will be an important entry in his catalogue at that point.
The album starts with the title track, a tale of a man who is one part bootlegger and one part songwriter. Two people get robbed in the song, and a third - the singer - gets his pocket picked. Supposedly the pickpocket makes off with a five dollar bill where the lyrics to the song were written. This made me think, ‘if the lyrics are on the bill and he loses it, how can the song include the theft of the song’? Or is this a different song about losing the first one? It can make your head hurt, until you remember that Corb is never trying to confuse his listeners; he’s trying to wink at us.
Other fun loving songs on the album include “Time to Switch to Whiskey” which has become a crowd favourite at concerts that Corb Lund has to trot out for drunken louts at every show in the same way Steve Earle does with “Copperhead Road.” Fortunately the song is an infectious number, with an important lesson. That lesson is that if you have been drinking beer all night, it may be time to switch to whiskey. No, wait – I’m pretty sure the opposite would be smarter. I guess it depends on where the evening is heading at that point. There’s Corb, winking at me again.
The melodies on the record are not terribly interesting, but they aren’t intended to be. They are there to serve as a platform for the stories Corb sings. Occasionally Corb will branch out, like with the hint of eastern rhythms on “Apocalyptic Modified Blues” but for the most part he plays it straight up country. Old school storytelling country, mind you, not the newfangled pop country popular in Nashville.
Corb Lund albums always bury a few slower tempo tracks with more to say, and genuine emotion in them. “Five Dollar Bill” gives us a few, including “Short Native Grasses (Prairies of Alberta).” It is a song about the uncaring plains of Alberta; so stark when you are looking for a friend, so welcome when you just want to forget about all your troubles. I’ve never seen the prairies but Corb can make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of a wheat field.
“Heavy and I’m Leaving” is the most musically interesting song, with an entire section of the song that appears to be possessed by the spirit of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” (not exactly, but the hint is there in the prairie air) only to return to its original course in a way that never feels forced either into or out of the break.
Corb writes great anthems for the working man, but they can edge into kitsch sometimes. When I first heard “Roughest Neck Around” I loved all the oil field imagery (bonus points for referring to oil work as “pulling dragons from the ground”) but after you’ve heard it a few times the expectation of the lyrics make them lose their sizzle.
Some of the songs get a bit too cutesy, as on “Daughter Don’t You Marry No Guitar Picker” which is essentially a blues lick where the premise (all the people a father doesn’t want his daughter to marry) isn’t interesting enough to withstand repeat listens.
However, even these weaker tracks are still pretty good, and aren’t so boring that I felt the urge to skip them. They are like the old stories long-time friends tell each other. Sure you’ve heard the stories before, but you just like to hear them tell it again anyway, even if you know how it ends.