There’s this writing and recording technique that’s been being fed to us, release by tearjerking release, over the last few years, when it first seemed to become widely documented. You got troubles. You want to write a desolate, beautiful release that effectively harnesses said troubles. You relocate to a freezing space in the middle of nowhere for a bit, and let the harsh, unforgiving surroundings seep into your songs. Justin Vernon shot to fame off the back of the notion in 2008, Mark Eitzel broke a four year silence with it in 2009, and this year, The Deer Tracks have made themselves its most recent (probably) proponents. That is, until Siskiyou, who have returned with sophomore release Keep Away The Dead, an album written and partly recorded in ‘the century-old Mara Community Hall’, in Mara, British Columbia (pop. 350, so I’m told) in the winter of 2010.
In Keep Away The Dead, Siskiyou mainman (and onetime Great Lake Swimmer) Colin Huebert, and cohorts Erik Arnesen, Shaunn Watt and Peter Carruthers, have certainly written the kind of record that one would expect from the quality of the surroundings that it originated in. Huebert’s voice throughout sounds like he’s shivering so hard that there’s little chance he’ll ever be warm again, and the record comes fully populated with songs named things like ‘Where Does That Leave Me’, ‘Dead Right Now’, and the particularly telling ‘So Cold’. Even when Huebert proclaims that he’s ‘got love to give’ (and give and give and give and give and give, as it happens), as on ‘Twigs and Stones’, he plays the part of a borderline obsessive eerily well in his dogged repetition.
You’d expect all that chilly heartache to become distinctly overbearing as Keep Away The Dead rattles down its frozen path, but in fact, it doesn’t in the slightest. It could be that Siskiyou have fleshed out their arrangements a little more this time round – it’s evident from the crackling electric guitar and synth that colour the opening title track, right up until closer ‘Dead Right Now’, which while typically resigned, exhibits a tendency toward the cinematic that plays healthily around with the bareboned formula that Siskiyou stuck to on their debut. To that same end, washes of static and other seemingly incidental sounds add a depth and character to the recording that subverts the old stripped back approach. Keep Away The Dead’s surprising vitality could also be down to its more upbeat tracks, cast about the record like burning coals – ‘Fiery Death’, sandwiched between two of the record’s loneliest cuts, provides all the fatalistic warmth that its name suggests. Or it could just be that, as far as desperately sad records go, Keep Away The Dead is near enough as beautiful as they come.
There aren’t many people who can cover ‘Revolution Blues’ and not only get away with it, but make it so completely and utterly their own that it’s not until you hear the titular phrase that you realise whose song it is you’re actually listening to. Huebert, it seems, is one of those people, and since the rest of them are hypothetical anyway, he’s the frontrunner in this case. It might not seem like it at first, but Keep Away The Dead, for all its emotional wreckage, does exactly what its title suggests.