A world away from the post-hardcore stylings of his band Alexisonfire, Dallas Green has been turning out pained, haunting acoustic tunes for seven years under his alias City and Colour – Dallas the City, Green the Colour. His début album Sometimes unleashed a tortured, pining soul onto the alternative-acoustic scene, a voice able to transmit both soaring joy and deepest despair years before Justin Vernon stepped into the limelight.
The best part of ten years on from that memorable record, it’s hard to tell which of Dallas’ musical outlets is the ‘other’ one. Alexis retain a more than healthy following, but increasingly it’s City and Colour which is capturing the imagination of listeners.
Rightly so; 2008’s Bring Me Your Love was an absolute triumph of a record, taking the raw force of Sometimes and sprinkling some more sanguine lyricism on top of what had previously been a fairly downbeat cake. So what to expect from Little Hell, Green’s third record under this pseudonym? Well, quite a lot, especially for those of us who’ve been admirers for quite some time.
A few beats into opener ‘We Found Each Other In The Dark’ and it’s clear that Little Hell is picking up right where Bring Me Your Love left off. Lyrics which mix melancholia with hope – “And when the smoke does finally pass / We will rise above all the ash” – soar in Green’s gorgeous tenor above a simple guitar line, building to a sonorous climax before concluding where it began, Green and his guitar warmly lilting “I heard the church bells from afar / But we found each other in the dark”.
It’s a terrific song, reminiscent of Bring Me Your Love‘s ‘The Girl’ in its outlook, yet also revisiting the emotional burdens which permeated the lyrics of Sometimes.
Yet Little Hell, whilst carrying on many of the musical themes which made the first two records so wonderful, is a very different creature, not least for its increased electrification. Lead single ‘Fragile Bird’ bounces off of a syncopated electric riff, while the mournful opening to ‘Sorrowing Man’ leads with a reverb-heavy guitar line. There’s also a much stronger band presence on Green’s third record; while he remains the unquestionable fulcrum of the band, the Canadian songwriter has also elected to increase the amount of backing he receives.
There’s still a series of wonderful solo songs – ‘Northern Wind’, ‘O’ Sister’, ‘Silver and Gold’ – which highlight the beauty of Green’s voice and the deftness of his guitar-playing, but the augmentation of his support is noticeable, and deftly applied. It’s impressive and pretty courageous to make such a strong shift, especially with a fanbase as rabid as CaC’s is, and it’s a testament to Dallas’ ear for composition that the louder, more band-orientated tracks sound as good as they do.
Indeed, it’s two full-throttle songs which stand out – ‘We Found Each Other In The Dark’ and the title track ‘Little Hell’. The former’s virtues have already been discussed, but the latter might be an even better song. Its regretful chorus and stunning finale provide the record’s high point, showcasing not only the brilliant range of Green’s voice but his lyrical skill as he pines: “If we could just hang a mirror on the bedroom wall / Stare into the past, and forget it all”.
A month after its release, and after a hatful of listens, the finer points of Little Hell are still revealing themselves. Although it never eclipses the majesty of Bring Me Your Love, O&T’s fifth favourite album of the 2000s, City and Colour’s third record is still a beguiling, poignant release which takes the moniker’s name to new heights, and looks almost certain to recruit a new legion of fans to Dallas Green’s ‘other band’.
Bursting with fresh lyrical ideas, nuanced musical arrangements and Green’s signature vocals and acoustic guitar, Little Hell makes for fabulous listening, whether you want to be uplifted or reflective, melancholy or hopeful.
The more you listen to it, the better it gets; if every album was like this we’d be spoilt for choice. As it is, there’s only one City and Colour. And it’s hard to see anyone matching them.
Best tracks: ‘We Found Each Other In The Dark’, ‘Little Hell’, ‘Fragile Bird’, ‘O’ Sister’.