Delve into Starpainter’s uneasy prairie-cosmos of sparkling yet hazy alt-country.
Somewhere out on the Canadian prairie, there’s a small town. Its community is frayed around the edges, unstable, a mix of restless itinerants and entrenched lifers like lichen-covered ancient rocks. People get claustrophobic, fall in and out of love, leave for bigger cities or chase dreams of escape; they stay away a while, but are always drawn back – the prairie town a star at the centre of a solar system, or sometimes a black hole at the centre of a galaxy. Both town and people may change a little over time – “The landscape ages like a face” goes a line on ‘Aerostar’ – but much has remained the same: people work the same jobs, have the same habits, talk about the same things – it’s a little uncanny, like an unsettling dream.
This is the world of ‘Rattlesnake Dream‘, the second album from Alberta-based Starpainter. The instrumentation and lyrics deftly explore the tension and proximity between a community’s internal claustrophobia and the vastness lying just beyond. The lyricism is vivid yet vague, never quite revealing the full picture – scenes fade out around the edges or are too zoomed in to fully get a handle on; this contributes to the dreamlike feel across the album. The sonic palette recalls classic country and roots rock acts like The Band on ‘Low Hanging Fruit’, and Neil Young on the lonely, pastoral ‘Even In a Car’, but also sundry others, including Saint Dominic’s Preview era Van Morrison, Springsteen and Fleet Foxes.
Things kick off with ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’, a rootsy country-rock song about following a craft or an artistic calling, leaving people behind, and struggling against economic hardship and exhaustion. Despite the dour themes, the song is lively, driven by rolling piano and distorted electric guitar which rise with the vocal into a marching, singalong chorus. The songs rounds out with a loose guitar solo with bright, barroom style piano flourishes, suggesting a twinkle of hope on the horizon.
Next, ‘Let It Pass’ presents the opposite perspective to ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’, that of the one who stayed put. The refrain “gonna take you down to the river, let it pass by in the yellow light of the evening” sung over a gentle, folky stomp, aptly distils the narrator’s resolute melancholy in the face of the loss and change, yet also their hope for brighter things ahead. ‘Summer in Your Mouth’ is a piano-led country ballad with subtle slide guitar and synchronised piano and electric guitar riffs which pick out precise notes like glimmers on the surface of a lake. The track continues the narrative of the album’s first two songs, the line “It’s been a couple years, are you cursing my name somewhere?” suggesting estrangement and embitterment between the interlocutors. Like the river in ‘Let it Pass’, nature represents an idyll: “Dreamt I was swimming in a lake somewhere in Saskatchewan/ You were hanging off my every word, I gotta get back to it”. Such invocations of nature and dreams appear across the album, tracing the experiences and journeys of its characters.
In the subtly psychedelic title track, with organs, sighing slide guitar and flute-like sounds, the request is made: “Take me out to the edge of the town, there are constellations no-one has found”; here, the stars represent a source of solace, yet also an unreachable or impossible aspiration. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics are interspersed with recollections of a troubling dream involving a rattlesnake, perhaps symbolising the fear buried beneath everyday mundanity, or the rattle and echo of an emptied-out town. Later, in ‘Fallin’ Off the Wagon’, the narrator still hasn’t found peace, and is troubled by stasis and the uncertainties rumbling below: “The job I had is where I’m working still, spend your whole life never crest that hill”. The track blends hope and hopelessness to great effect, with a twinkling heartland rock chorus recalling early War on Drugs.
Fear is a key theme on mid-album standout ‘Gasoline’. An unsettling tune with an almost supernatural atmosphere summoned by crying guitars, reverbed piano, and powerful lyrics: “Saw you standing in a field as I drove by/ My stomach turned and dread filled my mind/ I kept on driving because I was terrified”. Nature’s power appears in malevolent form: “Jesus Christ, the moon is huge tonight/ Water is turning in dark corners of my mind”. The listener never really knows who or what has been seen, the visceral reaction conveyed slightly off-kilter with the almost heartsick melody; the mystery and misalignment heighten the song’s impact and make for a track worthy of close and repeated listens.
The album’s centrepiece ‘Waiting for a Train’ hones in on people growing apart, becoming different, with a hint of something more sinister: “I know you’ve been laying up all night, you can’t fall asleep when you’re near me”. The track begins like a steam locomotive across a night-time prairie, then in the second half becomes a swirling, kaleidoscopic instrumental centred around a looping riff played on organ, piano and electric guitar over a rhythm not unlike Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. This creates a hazy, airless, fever-dream of an atmosphere, conjuring claustrophobia, painful cyclicity, and the depression and stasis experienced by the song’s narrator.
The recollection “I remember you walking up my driveway, out in your socks on the gravel/ grinning through the pain like a ballerina” appears early in ‘Waiting for a Train’, and sets up a connection to heart-rending closer ‘Do You Know’: “See you smiling through the pain, like a dancer on a stage, pirouetting through your days” – perhaps a song about illness, perhaps just about life wearing someone down – whatever the trouble in ‘Waiting for a Train’ was, it’s taken its toll. It’s a worthy closer for an album which very successfully creates its own little universe, a microcosm of the struggles and moments of wonder faced by those connected to small, rural communities. With great tunes and oblique, measured, multi-layered lyrics revealing more depth with each spin, the world of ‘Rattlesnake Dream‘ is well worth exploring.