Whitehorse conjures up a sound of the purest terra Canadiana. Over the arch of its twelve songs, The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss takes listeners through the bankrupt mining towns and faded fishing villages of the twin coasts, into the dirt road isolation of the Prairies and spits them out onto the neon streets of Vancouver. Even when the songs detour through the American Midwest or Mexican locales, it is through a Canadian prism. Which is to say, this isn’t Bob Dylan’s mix tape for a southern road trip. Everything you’ll hear from Whitehorse is red and white.
Whitehorse is the husband and wife team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland; Fate of the World is their sophomore release. If their debut platter slipped by you unnoticed, now is your time for redemption. The surface is all country and folk niceties, but beneath the warm veneer is a scathing, electric heart that pulses throughout the recording. Each listen begs for instant repeat gratification.
The power at the core of Whitehorse is the synergy between Doucet and McClelland. As co-songwriters and co-vocalists, their unity is the fuse that burns through Fate of the World. Their hometown charm holds everything together. Their harmonies ignite the tales of vagabonds and quarreling lovers that populate this record with a passion that is on the knife’s edge of romance.
The steam that erupts on the reverb-heavy “Radiator Blues” is the album’s carnal highlight. (The chemistry that exists between hubby and wifey on record bodes well for their live set.)
In the warm honeyed vocals of “Mismatched Eyes” and the rotgut fury of “Achilles’ Desire”, their vocals gel in perfect partnership. With occasional static stabs of guitar, Whitehorse fuses together equal parts Cowboy Junkies with Chrome Dreams-era Neil Young. (See “Peterbilt Coalmine” for proof that the preceding analogy isn’t just glue-induced hyperbole.)
“Has the other boot dropped?/Is my punk flame burning out?” Doucet asks on Peterbilt Coalmine. The flamethrower licks that come spewing out of his axe offer no doubt that the flame remains as incendiary as fuck.
As a songwriter, Doucet grows more confident and resourceful with each album. Contrasting the images of union busters with mojitos in “Wisconsin” and, in the same song, rhyming zuccotti with Somali puts Doucet at the forefront of modern Canadian songwriters of note. This Doucet guy’s gonna be huge, Dan Bejar-huge someday.
“Out Like a Lion” features more excoriating guitar work from Doucet. The tail end of the song pits McClelland’s ghostly, drawn-out “Oos” against Doucet’s spastic fingering. Though largely noted for his songwriting chops (check out his solo composition “The Ballad of Ian Curtis” from Steel City Trawler, 2010), his guitar work is a revelation on this album. Echoing the aforementioned Young as well as Daniel Lanois, Chris Whitley and Richard Thompson, he makes the case for being more than a handsome songwriter. This mofo slings a righteous six-string.
But to temper the fire of his guitar, McClelland adds the harmonic Oomph that Whitehorse requires. McClelland sings with the homespun ease and depth of Emmylou Harris. Her vocals veer from the tender (“Cold July”) to the whimsical (“Wisconsin”). But she also plies songs such as “Jane” and “Glamour in the Hammer” with playful sexuality. Her conviction to each note, her precise phrasing, is one of the more wonderful (and subtle) vocal performances on record this year. She is far from being a folkie Adele or Janelle Monae; instead she creates her own space on the album. In contrast to her hubby’s nasal delivery, she offers a bright pop clarity that can soar and dip as needed.
The Fate of this World Depends on this Kiss is available on Six Shooter Records. Check Whitehorse out on September 15 in Vancouver at Voices in the Park.