critic’s pick 129

Wow. Who saw this one coming? On Cha Cha Cha, Canadian songsmith Fred Eaglesmith takes a stylistic turn into the Twilight Zone by turning on the twang and reverb, giving a nod to rhumba and tango accents (as the album title so dutifully suggests) and enhancing the entire record in shadowy, noir-style atmospherics. One is prompted on first listen to see if David Lynch produced the record.

Not that any of this is a bad thing. It’s just a bit of a surprise, even from an artist as dependably crafty as Eaglesmith. At heart, Cha Cha Cha is a certifiable, summertime blast. The exotic percussive effects, the audibly humid ambience and the ultra-cool support of a vocal duo known as The Fabulous Ginn Sisters transform Eaglesmith from a keen Americana songwriter – probably the most authentically Texan-style scribe from the Great White North – into the sort of hipster that recalls such roots-savvy surrealists as Dan Hicks and the Hit Licks.

But that’s a mere suggestion of what Eaglesmith is up here. Cha Cha Cha is far darker than anything Hicks has ever attempted. There is restlessness, loss and unsettled reflection in many of the album’s 10 songs.

The opening Careless and Tricks set the mood with choruses repeated like single line chants (“I think you’re careless with my love” on the former and “You’re playing tricks on me” during the latter) as the Ginns, in full Hot Licks mode, echo the sentiments like a distant choir of sirens. Under it all is groove – inescapable, sweaty rhythms that seem trapped somewhere between Cuba and outer space. Yes, there’s plenty of cha cha cha in Cha Cha Cha, but it’s decidedly non-purist stuff. This is dance music for seriously doomed romantics.

The album isn’t fully devoted to lost soul reveries, however. I Would is pure pop optimism with a hazy drive, more cutie pie-gone-wrong singing from the Ginns and Eaglesmith’s scratchy, barely decipherable vocal grumble. And does the tune ever rock. This is one to crank up in the car and then some this summer.

What drives Cha Cha Cha as much as it is stylistic whimsy, though, is Eaglesmith’s gorgeously open and rough-cut production. The entire record sports a purposely unfinished sound that enhances its raw emotive colors. But there is also room for chessy keyboard effects, wiry guitar tremolo and dense percussive fabrics. Such a combo gives these songs a character that even Eaglesmith’s masterful live shows don’t always capture.

But it’s best not to get too mired in the hows and whys of a record like Cha Cha Cha. Instead, just give it a spin, preferably around dusk, and watch the summer haze garner a darker and groove-hearty glow.

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