Album Review – Corb Lund’s “Things That Can’t Be Undone”

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I have a country music dream where the current King of Canadian country Corb Lund leads an army of those red uniformed Canadian guys down to Nashville with the help of Canadian country Queen Lindi Ortega to take back country music for the good guys. Fred Eaglesmith could join them, and Daniel Romano could man the right flank. The Sadies could be the Air Force, and Petunia & The Vipers would be covert ops, posing as Georgia peach pickin’ Bro-Country songwriters to infiltrate the insides of the Music Row machine. Bring the Deep Dark Woods, Whitney Rose, Tim Hus, and Doug Paisley along too and make Hank Snow proud by helping to preserve what great country music used to be.

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Things That Can’t Be Undone is one of those albums you ultimately enjoy, but you may have initial reservations about, or maybe even concerns over, or downright complaints about for some listeners because it is full of unexpected curve balls. This album is not like anything Corb has ever released before, and though it may make an excellent introduction for Corb virgins, the aficionados will be given plenty of reasons to scratch their heads, at least to start.

Pairing up with Corb is producer extraordinaire and the man of the hour in Americana Dave Cobb, and together they construct Corb’s most sonically expansive and diverse album to date, that’s for sure. But the immediate concern after the first few listens is if the songs are done justice, or if they were stretched out of the pre-apportioned comfort zone of Corb and his Hurtin’ Albertans band.

corb-lund-things-that-cant be-undoneWhat we have here is a re-imagining of the Corb Lund sound, though I’m not sure he exactly had a “sound” to begin with. Previous efforts were more about Corb and the boys plugging in, and settling into whatever sound came to them and seemed to fit the mood of Corb’s compositions, and calling it good. There were plenty of variations within that basic approach. Corb’s never been afraid to throw a little old school rock ‘n roll or rockabilly sound at you, or even trend toward Western swing or neotraditional stuff in certain songs. Lund and his Hurtin’ Albertans are adept enough at different music styles, and if Things That Can’t Be Undone does nothing else, it proves their proficiency within a varying spectrum of influences.

The first song on the album, and the first released as a single was “Weight Of The Gun,” and immediately concern shifted to if Corb was doing the Americana version of trend chasing. This sort of Motown/Muscle Shoals blue-eyed soul thing that the song is styled with is super hot right now, and you’re hearing it all across the Americana spectrum. But is it really what Corb should be doing? Does he really need to find appeal with east Nashville hipsters? Furthermore, it really didn’t fit the style of the story of “The Weight Of The Gun.” Here Corb is talking about the burdens of being like an Outlaw of the old West—the worry of always having to look over your shoulder, and the guilt for all the blood you’ve spilled as a gunslinger. Meanwhile the music is this somewhat cheery, tambourine-shaking second coming of The Isley Brothers.

This same incongruity of message and style shows up on numerous occasions during Things That Can’t Be Undone. Corb sings from the perspective of a deployed military soldier in “Sadr City,” yet the music sounds like late 60’s Strawberry Alarm Clock post-psychedelic classic rock. At that point the words begin to feel anachronistic compared to the music, and it just causes a confusion of mood.

“Alice Eyes” sounds like Harry Nilsson or something, which in this instance actually kind of fits with the story. When “Goodbye Colorado” came on, I thought my player had skipped over to a Whitey Morgan playlist, which let’s face it, is not necessarily a bad thing, and then “Talk Too Much” had me thinking I was listening to The Who. I hope I’m not calling on too much musical knowledge for you to keep up, but this is the kind of whiplash and sometimes strange experiences Things That Can’t Be Undone affords.

Let me re-iterate though, I’m not sure this is an entirely bad thing. Yes, at times the matching up of music and words seems to get lost in the bid for sonic explorations, but at other times it is spot on. One of the best, and most country songs on the album is a co-write with Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours on a song called “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues.” Showing the kind of delicious wit we’ve gotten used to hearing from Corb over the years, it’s like a juxtaposed perspective on “Take This Job and Shove It,” which is referenced specifically in the song. Meanwhile the lead guitar licks evoke memories of Roy Nichols and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” while the rest of the song musically has very much of a “Working Man Blues” vibe.

corb-lundBut this leads the listener to another concern. With all this switching around of styles, you start to notice a pattern where the songs are more emulating other songs and eras instead of finding their own original path in life. The lead licks in songs like “Sadr City,” “Washed Up Rock Star,” and “Goodbye Colorado,” are a little bit cliché. In some respects, they’re probably meant to be, because Corb and Dave Cobb are trying to put you in a place and time in the general era of the 60’s and 70’s, and are using musical callbacks to do so. And frankly, it’s pretty effective. It’s hard not to get swept up in “Talk Too Much,” even though the words don’t offer a whole lot, because the sonic whirlwind indicative of early British pseudo-punk is hard to hold back the sway of.

Speaking of lyrics, Things That Can’t Be Undone feels like a slight regression from what Corb is capable of, or at least from what he evidenced on his last original record, Cabin Fever. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some excellent lyrical moments here, including in the stripped-down “S Lazy H” that calls very directly on Corb’s experience as a 6th generation rancher in Canada, and the common heartbreak of watching the family farm slowly fall to the motion of progress. But it’s kind of easy to question if just leaving the song as Corb and his acoustic guitar was a savvy decision. The song is solid, but you wonder how it would sound with a different approach. This album leaves you with a lot of “but’s.”

The other stripped-down song is the final track, “Sunbeam.” At the beginning and end, Corb sounds uncharacteristically lazy in his vocal delivery, almost like he was ready to be done recording this album. It doesn’t sound somber or intimate, it just sounds tired.

But what did I say at the beginning of this review? I said it’s an album that you ultimately grow to enjoy, or at least this listener did. All the stuff I said about the song “Sadr City”? How the lyrics and music didn’t line up, and the lead guitar riff is a bit cliché? I still really enjoy this song quite a bit, as I do most of the songs on the album. And though Things That Can’t Be Undone may be slightly less country compared to other Corb projects, it also is more classic and less contemporary. This isn’t an issue of there being too much rock on this album, it’s the issue of there not being enough originality.

They tried to hit home runs with this album on each song, and when you do that, some are going to connect and end up in the outfield bleachers, some may strike out, some may shank slightly off the bat a bloop in for a single, and some may go foul. You certainly can’t complain this album isn’t spicy, or that it doesn’t keep you on your toes. It’s a fun record. And though it’s easy to second guess some of the decisions whomever made them (and my music brain certainly did so while listening), the ultimate result is pretty salty. The only question is, could have sticking to an approach closer to Corb’s native style resulted in better songs? We probably will never know.

1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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NOTE: This album also comes with a deluxe edition that includes a 22-minute DVD with a mini-documentary and five acoustic performances.

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