“I turned the radio on/ 25 years ago,” croons Doug Paisley at the opening of Strong Feelings, his third LP. “They were playing your song.” He’s addressing a female singer of moderate radio success, but he’s vague about her identity, which doesn’t seem to matter to him. What does resonate, and what he explores so hauntingly, is that uncanny listener’s sense — both isolated and comforted by song — where “there’s nobody else to say it to/ just me and you.” Paisley too reaches back to a vague era of the past, with a dulcet twang to his country-tinged ruminations that evokes the likes of Kris Kristofferson.
The Toronto-based Paisley began his musical career in a Stanley Brothers tribute duo before going solo, touring with the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. On his masterful 2010 album, Constant Companion, Paisley perfected his peculiar strain of ’70s singer/ songwriter-indebted alt-country. On Strong Feelings, Paisley and band (the core group of bassist Bazil Donovan and keyboardist Robbie Grunwald joined by frequent Billy foil Emmett Kelly and once again featuring The Band’s Garth Hudson as guest) range wider: Exploratory classic rock a la Derek and the Dominoes rises up on “Where the Light Takes You.” There’s smattering of jazz saxophone and — in one instance — Paisley plunked Hudson down in the lobby of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre so that he could play the Steinway piano that once belonged to composer Glenn Gould. But while Paisley introduces new wrinkles, he’s still at his best distilling rock, country and folk on clear and unfussy numbers like “Our Love” and “Old Times.”
One of Constant Companion‘s greatest pleasures was hearing Paisley in duet with Leslie Feist and while she doesn’t reappear here, Paisley finds another Canadian singer as partner. On the gentle finger-picking of “What’s Up is Down,” he’s joined by the reclusive Mary Margaret O’Hara, who reappears on the nimble closer “Because I Love You.” Here, Paisley revisits the opening theme of “Radio Girl,” where songs travel “over great spaces and through time” and in her delicate, gorgeous voice, O’Hara joins the journey. Perhaps it’s merely coincidence that O’Hara’s lone studio album, 1988′s Miss America, dates from nearly 25 years ago, but either way, Paisley is her partner in timelessness. And although his humble songs might be destined never to make it onto mainstream radio, they nevertheless travel similar wavelengths, outside our normal sense of time. Maybe, 25 years from now, someone will be playing his song.