Anyone expecting Ridley Bent's second album to continue in the alternative "hick-hop" direction of Blam will be flabbergasted by Buckles and Boots. This record is solidly new country, with barely a nod to any of his earlier influences. Buckles and Boots finds Bent squarely in the camp of Lyle Lovett and George Jones, deftly and drolly spinning character stories while his crackerjack band keeps the dancefloor hopping and the bartender pulling beer. Acquiring professional focus is a double-edged sword: adapting one's sound and musical direction often smacks of compromise -- an overt effort to gain industry respect, a larger audience, commercial solvency, whatever -- that too often results in losing the core audience while disastrously failing to connect with a new one. Bent, however, seems to be in little danger here, as his greatest strength -- a knack for clever rhyming and storytelling -- is much more upfront and essential than on Blam -- country music suits his style, and his style suits country music. The 11 songs of Buckles and Boots are all character studies, snapshots of an intriguing group of characters -- a high-school jock caught up in a drug sting, a faded alcoholic rodeo star, a cowboy trying to avoid being scalped, and so on. Bent's lyricism has matured, less cluttered and more direct than on his debut. One strong song is of a gas jockey who can't stop hoping for the return of a one-night stand, obsessing over her "Faded Red Hoodie": "I went out searching for her high and low/Several years and not a single trace/So I buried that hoodie in a shallow grave/But I dig it up when I get depressed/I went a little bit crazy, I must confess." His alternative fan base will have to be content with "Nine Inch Nails," a clever little song about mixing up CDs with his ex-girlfriend that name-checks Hüsker Dü and AC/DC, among others; and especially "Apache Hairlifter," a longer narrative piece that can best be described as "cowboy gothic," on which Bent's vocal delivery sounds like Nick Cave narrating one of his murder ballads, while Adrian Dolan's fiddle wafts in and out of the soundscape, distantly echoing Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds. Nice. Bent's voice is similar to that of Dwight Yoakam and is perfect for his new-country persona, clearly capable of expressing longing, heartache, sadness, or droll humor. The musicianship and production are all top-notch, with such high-profile Vancouver studio musicians as Pat Steward, Rob Becker, and Simon Kendall showing their great chops and excellent feel. The Texas swing arrangements are relatively derivative but are performed with such enthusiasm and high spirits that it will be easy for country radio programmers to seamlessly add songs like "Faded Red Hoodie" and the title track to the most conservative of playlists. Assuming Bent continues in this musical direction, this record will eventually be considered his "real" debut, heralding a bright new talent in Canadian country music. As such, Buckles and Boots deserves to reach a lot of new fans and become the foundation for a solid career. Recommended.
Buckles and Boots Review
by Laurie Mercer