The short version: While the concept for ‘Songs Of The Plains’ isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been, this album nonetheless showcases Colter Wall’s style better than his debut album did.
The long version: To say I’ve got a complicated relationship with Colter Wall’s music would be underselling it. When he entered in 2015 with his debut EP, Imaginary Appalachia, I was floored. His vocal style was reminiscent of Johnny Cash meets Tom Waits … and this is from someone in his early twenties! But his self-titled album from 2017 remains a project I really wish I loved. The more plain delivery and presentation of these tracks compared to his debut EP left me feeling underwhelmed … even if I conned my way into liking it at one point.
That also shows Wall’s artistic ability however, as you know he’s never going to deliver the same project twice. His new album, Songs Of The Plains is a tribute to his native land of the Saskatchewan prairie. If anything, the barebones presentation at least made more sense for this project.
Sure enough, Songs Of The Plains is a solid step-up for Wall, with the concept more grand and daring and the album really adopting a mood. Of course, that mood I’m referring to does mean that this album is about as niche as niche can get, and while this is an album that will test the old “respect it but don’t love it” trope for listeners, Wall mostly succeeds with his vision.
Songs Of The Plains is acoustic, yes, but it also offers pedal steel and harmonica to help fill in the sound. It’s meant to sound old because thematically, it is old, and it’s a great fit for Wall’s heavy baritone and bass. There’s room to breathe here, and given how the place in question this album revolves around can create that vast feeling, it all comes together nicely.
With that said, Songs Of The Plains is more of a concept album in its approach and presentation rather than any narrative being told. It’s not too dissimilar from what Marty Stuart did last year with Way Out West.
But that also means it doesn’t offer a lot to say when it comes to the lyrical department. With only seven original tracks, the album’s biggest sin just may be that it doesn’t push hard enough to reach its potential. Certain shorter tracks like “The Trains Are Gone” and “John Beyers (Camaro Song)” simply feel unfinished, especially the latter track with its unsatisfying ending. Even while the traditional “Night Herding Song” is a good showcase for Wall’s voice, there’s very little to latch onto other than that.
Of course, maybe this is all intentional. After all, Wall harkens back to a time when setting the scene was all we got, but the album is still at its best when the stakes are higher, such as the story and unfortunate demise of “Wild Bill Hitchcok” or the confrontation between a poor prairie boy and a shady, rich Toronto man in “Saskatchewan in 1881.”
I will say this though – there is a spirit to this album. Most of these characters in Wall’s songs are lone wolfs living off the land and surviving on very little, to the extent where it becomes all they know. It’s why the Billy Don Burns cover of “Wild Dogs” fits in perfectly here, as does the declaration of “Plain To See Plainsmen.”
More than that though, it also translates well into two tracks in the back half of this album that explore more modern settings. Loneliness still pervades over the character in the melodically strong “Thinkin’ On A Woman,” and “Manitoba Man” is a particularly striking, dark song about a man’s addiction that’s gone too far, again, almost to the point where it’s all he knows. It’s that link to the past that shows what prevails. We learn how to overcome struggles only for the scene to change and the problem to shift form.
Another fair criticism of Wall’s work is a lack of tempo or energy. This can also tie in with the lack of stakes or the drama in the writing, but at some point it does feel like the album is running through the motions. Considering his booming voice has a ton of presence to it, it’s no surprise that something like “Wild Dogs” is a perfect fit for him, instrumental outro included.
The track that really throws the listener for a loop though is “Tying Knots In The Devil’s Tail” where he’s joined by Blake Berglund and Corb Lund. It feels like three cowboys sitting around a campfire and singing an old song, something that works very well and again, shows what can happen when Wall adds some grit to his songs.
Really, that’s what Songs Of The Plains feels like – a collection of cowboy tunes you could play around a campfire with some buddies that honors tradition while also offering something new. Heck, even “Night Herding Song,” a song that’s mostly a capella, features the sounds of a cackling fire in the background, so it’s not a ludicrous comparison. Still, at the end of the day, Songs Of The Plains is an oddly enjoyable listen that succeeds for what it’s going for even if it feels like it could have stretched its imagination a bit further.
- Best tracks: “Wild Dogs,” “Tying Knots In The Devil’s Tail (w/ Blake Berglund and Corb Lund),” “Manitoba Man,” “Saskatchewan In 1881,” “Wild Bill Hitchcok”
- Worst track: “John Beyers (Camaro Song)”