Ryan Boldt, who performs deep, dark, tradition-based indie folk music under the name The Deep Dark Woods, grew up surrounded by the prairie landscapes of Canada’s Saskatchewan province. Since his most recent album, 2017’s Juno nominated Yarrow, he’s relocated to Canada’s Atlantic Coast and says his home by the ocean is now full of pets and plants and happiness.
You’d never know it from his sixth album, The Deep Dark Woods Changing Faces. In it he grapples with the inner turmoil of leaving one place, or maybe we should say one situation, for the next. So fear not, you longtime fans. Boldt’s home may be happier but his music isn’t.
I’ve only been peripherally aware of The Deep Dark Woods, though Boldt and crew have played more than once at Pickathon and I saw them there in 2009. But his music looks to have evolved from straightforward interpretations of purely traditional fare like “Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor,” “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” and such, to the dark, rich, nearly psychedelic gothic folk rock that you’ll find on Changing Faces. The band is a rotating cast with some who come and go and a few regulars. This time around the main ensemble includes fellow Saskatchewan country folk musicians Katy and Clayton (Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum), electric guitarist Evan Cheadle, and Geoff Hilhorst on keyboards. Boldt himself plays lots of instruments including electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, percussion and bass.
Boldt’s biggest accomplishment on Changing Faces may be the way he moves and shifts through styles including doo-wop, Irish folk, Appalachian folk and more, while maintaining a continuity of sound and feel throughout. And that sound and feel is a folk version of the old “wall of sound” technique, this one made of layers of guitars, keyboards, percussion a string quartet and even some horns.
The opening track “Treacherous Waters” is a fine example, and it’s where the doo-wop comes in. It has the rhythm typical of that early rock and roll style, played with great panache on the Farfisa organ by Hilhorst in a way that floats atop the murky layers of acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, and other keyboards. Boldt’s falsetto vocals seem partly blurred by those layers, the song all verse and no chorus, as he sings a tale of betrayal by those closest to him.
The album’s first single was the slow burning intense love song “Everything Reminds Me.” It’s an old fashioned song whose protagonist has left his love in “Carolina,” and is obsessively thinking of her. The arrangement on this one is the antithesis of “Treacherous Waters,” – just a plucked nylon string guitar, Boldt’s warm baritone voice and a quietly mixed string quartet for the most part. The strings are by Russian arranger and composer Maria Grigoryeva, who plays violin and viola, with Lyudmila Kadyrbaeva on cello and Erik Nielsen on bass.
The second single is the sad and lovely “How Could I Ever Be Single Again?,” which Richard Thompson fans will recognize as a slight play on the title of one of his best loved ballads. It seems to me that more than the title is an RT homage. The tune is a lovely lilting Celtic type waltz, and it’s a tale of doomed love, and even Linthicum’s electric guitar has some Thompsonesque spikiness to it.
There’s a lot more here to like. “My Love For You Is Gone” is lovely country soul recommended for fans of Bonny “Prince” Billy. “When I Get Home Tonight” is a plodding slab of cosmic country with lyrics worthy of Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Buddy Miller and great interplay between the electric guitars and that Farfisa. Ethereal Hammond and harmonium lend “In The Meadow” a surrealism like you’ll find on Anna & Elizabeth’s stupdendous The Invisible Comes to Us. The closing track “Yarrow” sounds for all the world like a traditional English ballad done Fairport style, although the only trad song here is “Anathea,” on which Colin Nealis plays all four parts of a string quartet which dominates the deeply affecting arrangement along with Cheadle’s plucked nylon string guitar. But the subtle touches of piano, organ and deeply twangy electric guitar make this spooky old fairy tale of a tune soar right into your heart.
Changing Faces is short and sweet, eight songs in 30 minutes flat, perfect for a vinyl LP. Which I’ll submit would be the best format for this warm, mostly acoustic album. The Deep Dark Woods on this album make just the kind of music you’d expect from their name, and it is subtly glorious.
(Six Shooter Records, 2021)