Published Jan 15, 2019The latest volume of Whitehorse's Northern South, a collection of blues, soul and other music from the American South, must have been fun to play: the grooves are locked down, the percussion is smart and the rhythm section is as steady as a freight train. Melissa McClelland sings lead on a number of these tracks — she can work breathy or she can belt and the variety of her instrument is often beautiful. She knows the material, and the harmonies with Luke Doucet carry historically laden texts unusually well. Doucet's guitar grind has a looping, "hound dog going after a rabbit" quality, especially in the first minute of "Baby, Scratch My Back."
Yet maybe, no matter how good, we don't need another cover of "St James Infirmary," or maybe after Etta James, do we need a couple of white Canadians singing "Baby, Scratch My Back," or do we need another stomp heavy cover of "John the Revelator," absent of the original's fear of god.
It's not like they are incapable of performing standards with desire — their cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" (from their self-titled 2011 record) is imbued with almost as much erotic melancholy as the Boss himself. Their 2017 album, Panther In the Dollhouse, had questions about the aesthetics and ethics of how we fuck now. Whitehorse are smart, but on Northern Soul Vol. 2, the smarts and eroticism are peculiarly absent. These songs, these choices are public texts — played so often, by so many different people, the basis of rock'n'roll and so much popular culture — that to play them, you have to make an argument why.
These versions aren't egregious and they are not dull. They make an argument that as canon, as folk music, or even as repertoire, they must continually be renewed and played so the texts don't become ossified. As a formal exercise in how to play canonical blues/soul music well, this album can be recommended. However, it could be greasier, stranger, less tight or even less formal. It holds too tight to its material. (Six Shooter)