“I turned the radio on, they were playing your song,” Doug Paisley sings on “Radio Girl,” the rousing country-rock opener on his third full-length, Strong Feelings. Bookended by odd flourishes of piano, that rambling country-rock number is about the immense distance between people, which Paisley measures in miles, years and strong feelings. But “Radio Girl” doubles as an incisive inquiry into our relationship with music — country music in particular, with its emphasis on sentiment and memory. “When there’s no one else to cling to, I turn the radio on.”
With no back story other than paying dues around Toronto, the Canadian singer/songwriter Doug Paisley began his career playing in a variety of acts with such matter-of-fact names as Live Country Music, Stanley Brothers: A Loving Tribute, and Russian Literature. His three solo albums, the first of which was released in 2008, established him as the kind of singer-songwriter that gets taken for granted: unpretentious, plainspoken, intelligent and almost sneakily insightful. His songs sound immediately familiar, but you have to live with his albums a while before they reveal their depth and nuance. Then they hit you like a piano dropped from several stories above.
Because “Radio Girl” so adeptly examines the reasons we listen to and connect with music, here are 10 reasons you should be listening to Doug Paisley.
1. His hangdog vocals
Paisley’s is the kind of voice that makes country music almost a genetic predetermination. With a gentle break in his syllables and an exquisitely hangdog tone, it recalls Merle Haggard and John Prine in equal measure. He’s an expert at evoking some unspecified tragedy whose sting has long dulled but whose memory lingers in the corners of everyday life.
2. His succinct lyrical style
Straightforward in the country style, but following the old fiction-writing adage: “Show, don’t tell.” His lyrics skirt their subject, as though these broken relationships and severed romances are too painful to approach head on. As with the most heartbreaking country music, Paisley’s songs are about the bittersweet act of remembering — specifically, how our memories tragically fail to summon up to a flesh-and-blood person. Or, as he sings on Strong Feelings, “Here’s a memory from that time/ for all its sadness it won’t bring her back to my side.”
3. His odd one-offs
During a stint opening for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Paisley launched a multimedia project with visual artist Shary Boyle called Dark Hand and Lamplight. While he played acoustic guitar on stage, she projected original animation behind him, essentially creating a music video in real time.
4. His ace backing band
Paisley has amazing taste in backing musicians. Strong Feelings features Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang, Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan, and Garth Hudson of the Band, who plays piano and saxophone. They’re more than just impressive names — they establish a solid country-rock foundation, then build on it in unexpected ways.
5. His great duet partners
Paisley’s an ace at choosing the right female foil for his songs. Both Jennifer Castle (the Pining, Castlemusic) and Leslie Feist enlivened 2010′s Constant Companion, and Strong Feelings features reclusive Canadian folk vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara. Their duet on “Because I Love You” closes out the album on a wistful note, as her exquisite warble bounces off his stoic delivery.
6. His all-nighters
While most of Strong Feelings was recorded at a studio in Toronto, Paisley lugged some unwieldy recording equipment four hours up to Ottawa, where he held a marathon recording session in the lobby of the National Arts Centre. There, Garth Hudson played his keyboard parts on a piano that once belonged to Glenn Gould.
7. His nimble guitar work
Showing a sure hand on the frets, Paisley’s an unshowy guitar player, more than willing to let Kelly take lead. But he adds some textural strums and some spidery picking to these songs, and the steely licks of “It’s Not Too Late (to Say Goodbye)” recall Bakersfield and the Band in equal measure.
8. His gospel repurposing
On “Growing Souls,” Paisley turns the 19th-Century hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” into a yearning chorus that’s less about man and his creator and more about the distance between lovers. What makes it so powerful isn’t the skillful reappropriation, but the way he drawls and draws out the syllables until the song nearly breaks apart.
9. His surprising coda to “Where the Light Takes You”
The penultimate track on Strong Feelings starts as a delicate folk tune before shifting into a psych-country coda that feels like the Flying Burrito Brothers with Pink Floyd’s laser show. With its ’70s synth bursts and Emmett Kelly’s space-cowboy guitar, it’s completely unexpected and reveals and artist eager to brush aside genre expectations.
10. His oddly hypnotic cover for Constant Companion
Featuring a life-size puppet courtesy of Canadian artist Heather Goodchild, that cover is either the stuff of genius or the stuff of nightmares. As long as his papier-mâché doppelganger doesn’t achieve sentience and sit in with the band…