Music Review: Steven MacDougall - Cruel & Unusual

Dancing, grooving, rocking, jamming, a little reggae, hip-hop, that's what we expect from Cape Breton's Slowcoaster.  So it's pretty much a surprise to hear what the group's front man MacDougall does on his own.  Replace all that stuff above with singer-songwriter, pop, folk, country, acoustic, introspective, and laid-back.  Oh, I'd better add darn good writer to that list.

It shouldn't have been that much of a surprise to me, because one of the strengths of Slowcoaster is the depth of the lyrics amidst all those infectious tunes.  The group isn't just another party band, and you don't find throw-away lines in the songs.  MacDougall meanwhile has had a long-running partnership with Gordie Sampson, co-writing and doing the Nashville trips.  What he kept aside for this solo disc, his second, sounds on the surface quite different musically, it's not that big a stretch to imagine how some of these could be Slowcoaster songs, too.

Kiss Me Like You Mean It, the first cut, has the feel of a new country track, with its fiddle break at the top, but has some of MacDougall's brand of slightly different lyrics: "Objects in the rear view mirror are not so far away" is the opener.  He goes a little more intense than the usual country tune, with "Kiss me like you mean it, like we're dying".  I think his real strength as a lyric writer is the way he takes everyday phrases and gives them extra meaning, developing whole songs around something we say every day, such as Don't Hold Your Breath.  The song Cliche speaks right to it, I guess, where he spins a tune around a few of them, such as "red wine on a white dress" and "bullfrog and a princess", about a woman who feels like a cliche for her actions.  Best of them all is the title cut, Cruel & Unusual, about how a lover, "how someone so beautiful, can turn on a dime, like whiskey to wine, it's cruel and unusual."

Don't Sing About Love is probably the closest to Slowcoaster, just MacDougall and his acoustic, picking at what could be jam-band song, if he brought in the rest of the band.  Here though, it's still lots of fun thanks to a great groove, and some back-up singers who add a gospel feel.  He could play it solo at Slowcoaster gigs and the kids would love it.  The more country-leaning stuff here?  Not so much I figure, it's going to be a different audience that appreciates this album.  It certainly shows MacDougall isn't about to be pigeonholed, and it's a pretty strong declaration that he's joining the Ace Songwriters of Eastern Canada Association.  Uh, I just made that group up, but it could totally exist you know.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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