Blue Dirt Girl
No Street Signs No Straight Lines
By Jason Blalock
With a sound that’s oddly timeless, both down home and ethereal, and occasionally profound, Blue Dirt Girl continue to refine and expand their approach to ‘modern soul’ in No Street Signs No Straight Lines.
The Vancouver based Blue Dirt Girl was formed in 2015 by lead singer and guitarist Kathryn Sutherland, along with bassist Albert Klassen, who form the heart of the band. Performing as a duo, trio, or quartet, their lineup also frequently features Tony Lee on drums, and/or Baylie Adams on saxophone. No Street Signs No Straight Lines is their third album, after their 2016 debut Crazy Beautiful and their 2021 EP Nothing Is As It Was.
The band describes itself as modern soul, but their sound is harder to pin down. They’ve crafted a subtly unique blend of musical styles, roping in funk, country, saloon blues, folk, even touches of psychedelia. The result is oddly familiar, yet refusing to ever settle into a single retro style; a sound which is old and new at once.
No Street Signs puts its strongest asset up front from the start: Sutherland’s gorgeous voice. It’s strong and nuanced and, like the band’s sound, doesn’t want to fit into a single style. One moment she reminds of classic Dolly Parton, in another she recalls the energetic cries of Grace Slick. 1.5 Miles Out describes a nighttime ride on a train, describing the click-clack of the rails as she recalls a past love.
Indeed, most of the songs on this album are focused on the little everyday successes and failures in life. The album seems to go out of its way to avoid references to the modern technological world, except Text 1 and its brief tale of receiving messages from an old lover. Aside from that, most of the songs on this album could have just as easily been recorded in the 90s, or the 70s, in some alternate timeline.
Lyrically the band seems to be aiming for abstraction, sketching out a few details while leaving the rest to the listener’s imagination. This idea is expressed directly in the album’s second track, Speculate. The singer apparently came across a 1950’s truck at the bottom of a ravine, with a tree growing out of it. How did it get there? Why? As the band says, “it leaves us room to speculate.”
At its best, these lyrics act like abstract art, or a classic Chinese painting, forcing the listener’s imagination to fill in the details left out. However, at times, the lyrics simply feel incomplete. STC seems to tell the tale of meeting a commercial driver who’s spent 15 years driving around the American midwest. The chorus repeats the line “I nearly froze out there he said,” as a steel slide guitar adds a cold windy undercurrent to the dialogue.
But why did he almost freeze and how did he get out of it? The song doesn’t tell the story, just the aftermath. The man seems sad and his hands shake, presumably from PTSD.
For some, the songs’ refusal to explain themselves may be a bit distracting.
That doesn’t take anything away from the album’s overall vibe, as it ambles along its quiet reflections on modern old-fashionedness. This isn’t really an album to be listened to for deep analysis, rather it’s music one might hear at a moody bar or understated coffee house, as people quietly reflect on their own private regrets.
The middle of the album tends to sound samey, with too many similar-sounding songs about lost loves. The track editing also leaves very little break between songs, allowing them to literally run together. Likewise, the understated tone also prevents individual tracks from standing out. It might have been stronger with a couple of these cut.
Fortunately, it rallies again towards the end, with some of the best songs on the album. The oddly-named Song Of The Crawdads mixes ethereal steel guitar and analog electronics to create one of the most distinctive sounds, half blues but with a dash of Pink Floyd.
The best single song on the album may be its penultimate track, Listen To The Birds, a jazzy upbeat love song with snappy drumming from Dan Ponich and some gorgeous smokey sax work from Baylie Adams. This allows Sutherland to show off her range, and the song itself has a nice crescendo as it goes on.
Overall, No Street Signs No Straight Lines is a strong album, and highly recommended to fans of blues, country, or jazz. That it may go on a bit too long isn’t a big problem, and the best songs on the album could have easily become jukebox staples in another time or place.
cover photo: Charmian Nimmo