With Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles and Price
(Sonic Unyon; 2004)
By Scott Reid | 16 March 2004
With Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles and Price is the debut solo album from Deadly Snakes frontman and Toronto native Andre Ethier. Last year’s Ode to Joy brought the Snakes their most publicity yet, and I suppose that makes sense. Though certainly not a band capitalizing on the trends — they’d been perfecting their style since ’96, probably even earlier — the Snakes carved a place for themselves in a year when Canadian indie music began to gain international recognition. Their take on garage rock came as surprising to even the most jaded of the genre’s fans. They, like the rest of us, had been abused by a flood of mediocrity pushed forth since the Strokes struck a money chord with Is This It, thereby heralding the deluge of countless bare-bones rock bands with far more attitude than talent.
But all of that is kind of irrelevant when talking about Ethier’s solo album since, for the most part, it turns its back on the straightforward rock he’s churned out with the Snakes. Recorded in two days with help from Pete Hudson (producer of Ode to Joy), Christopher Sandes (“an old friend of mine who plays the piano”) and “Pickles and Price” (all I can really tell you is that they’re credited with playing bass, drums and chorus; the rest is vague), With… takes on a wonderful The Band/Bob Dylan Americana production/songwriting feel most reminiscent of their infamous collaboration The Basement Tapes.
Though Ethier had flirted with the style many times before (especially in his vocal mannerisms, which have always had a Dylan flair), this marks the first time he has submerged himself in it. His songwriting hasn’t fundamentally changed — there are lyrical and musical throwbacks to pretty much every Snakes album — but the arrangements and production are drastically different. Unlike the brash attack of Ode to Joy, With… finds Ethier’s songs adorned with piano, standup bass, lightly brushed percussion, and acoustic guitar. That isn’t to say that the album is entirely downbeat; even during its most upbeat moments, the arrangements are far more delicate and atmospheric than those he has previously explored.
Frankly, the new threads seem to suit Ethier better than the Rolling Stones facade he usually parades around. His voice, sounding infinitely more soulful and affecting, embraces the love of Dylan and The Band to great effect. In fact, the record is at its most successful when he lets the nostalgia fly; “Let Me Put My Suitcase Down,” “The Hanging Man” and “Dear John” (the closest he comes to channeling Highway 61) all tightly embrace the familiar style, and Ethier’s songwriting is strong enough to pull it off as more than just a superfluous copy.
The album’s undeniable centerpiece is “Last Line." “Don’t cry, you’ll find you’re just spooked a bit, you took a shine to it,” he croons over the usual diet of lightly strummed acoustic guitar and subtle piano; “but this is my last line, and then home.” The benefits of the record’s lax production really come to light with it; rarely has he sounded this sincere, and I can’t think of an arrangement that would better suit the song’s pensive lyrics.
Of course, he doesn’t have the songwriting talent of Roberston or Dylan in their prime — very few do — and the monotonous feel, no doubt a result of the expeditious recording process, takes a toll toward the final quarter. All told, I’m not sure if Ethier’s solo record has the kind of appeal to make it as universally lauded as Ode To Joy, but I do think it could very well be Ethier’s most realized and heartfelt work to date. By stripping down the usual layers of distortion around him, he sounds liberated in the new possibilities of his writing — leaving us with a handful of great songs and reaffirmation that he is one of our country’s finest.