A lost Americana gem hasn't just been dug up with the reissue of the Blue Shadows' 1993 album On The Floor To Heaven -- it's also been bettered.
Given the deluxe treatment with a new second disc containing outtakes and cover songs, this set will certainly gladden the hearts of those in the Blue Shadows' cult fan base. More importantly, perhaps, it might introduce a new generation to the Vancouver country and roots rock band that burned all too briefly in the '90s, never quite attaining the recognition they deserved.
The late singer-songwriter Billy Cowsill -- who became a fixture of Calgary's music scene after he left the Shadows' -- once described the band's sound as "Hank goes to the Cavern Club," meaning early Merseybeat Beatles meets vintage country. That's a near-perfect assessment too, although the mark the Everly Brothers left on the band's sound simply can't be denied either. Alt-country pioneers like Gram Parsons and The Byrds need to be given their due as well.
The group's greatest strength is the pairing of Cowsill and co-frontman Jeffrey Hatcher, the duo's priceless harmony vocals readily recalling those of the Everlys and Lennon/ McCartney. That chemistry fuels a tune like Coming On Strong, with its country fiddle and Cathy's Clown beat. It hits home the emotion on tracks rich with honky-tonk heartache like The Embers, When Will This Heartache End and If I Were You.
This is "Sunday Morning Coming Down" country, to quote Kris Kristoff erson, reflective, whiskey-bitten and full of rambling man regret.
The album's master stroke is the title track, a beautiful ballad that rends the soul like the best Gram Parsons cuts.
The original album also contained tasty old time rock 'n' rollers and a wonderful Roy Orbison homage, Is Anybody Here, where Cowsill delivered one of the greatest vocals of his career, his smooth, soulful croon sending shivers up the spine.
As strong as the original recording is, the newly released material fully lives up to it and even surpasses it in a few instances -- believe it or not.
It's both a shock and a crying shame that fantastic originals like A Paper 'n a Promise, And the Curtains Close and Heart of a Lion, Soul of a Dove never made it onto a Blue Shadows record while the band was in existence. Lyrically they're among the group's most poignant songs and they each have catchy hooks that might have been equalled a Blue Rodeo-style breakthrough commercially.
Meanwhile, as he demonstrated in his Calgary band The Co-Dependents, Cowsill was a master interpreter, and this package boasts a handful of inspired cover songs that are worth the price of admission alone. A cool, honky-tonk take on Joni Mitchell's Raised On Robbery, a soulful stab at George Jones's Hell Stays Open All Night Long and a fun run through the Michel Pagliaro folk-rock hit What the Hell I Got are three standouts.
The Blue Shadows never received their due while they were around, in an era when slick new country and line dancing dominated the market place, and that's unfortunate. But it's never too late to discover music this great.