"Life might seem good on the northern rim of Lake Ontario – the Loonie is strong, Cito Gaston is back in the dugout – but Toronto’s One Hundred Dollars are here to remind us that, at close enough range, things are shitty everywhere. For starters, the six-piece country outfit cites leukemia as its honorary seventh member; lead guitarist and co-songwriter Ian Russell was diagnosed while the group was prepping its first EP for release – the poignantly titled Hold It Together. Yet even without that weighty bit of back-story, the 12 songs on the band’s full-length debut are deeply expressive of frustration, ache and loss.
Singer Simone Schmidt – who’s got a raw, world-weary drawl akin to Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin – brings the listener unabashedly close in the first few seconds of the leadoff track, “Careless Love.” It’s been 10 years and a handful of failed follow-ups since critics first swooned over the opener to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, yet this track feels like a worthy passing of the torch. Schmidt’s song – a weary lament about a sloppy lover – has the same profane, arresting quality as Williams’ masturbation fantasy, only it works to opposite effect; “I lie on my back and moan at the ceiling” has been supplanted by “I never come but it don’t matter / I could be any other girl / My head planted on that pillow my eyes fixed up above / Is this what they meant when they sang Careless Love?” If I can still hear the former at the grocery store 10 years later, the latter feels deserving of more than a sliver of the same attention.
From here, Schmidt and Co. roll through a cycle of hardscrabble ballads about killers waylaid by inclement weather (“Snow and Rain”), lesbian lovers on the run from bigoted eyes (“Hell’s a Place”), and long shifts in a northeastern Ontario gold mine (“Fourteen Hour Day”). I’m not sure whether Russell or Schmidt do the bulk of the writing, but the results are uniformly impressive – these are songs that avoid sweeping generalities, training their gaze on small details like a hitchhiker’s thumbs in Quesnel and sooty boot stains on a flight of porch stairs in Timmins.
Veteran producer Rick White (Eric’s Trip, Elevator) knows enough to keep the no-frills backing of acoustic guitar, bass, organ and drums low in the mix, but he’s pretty generous about Stew Crookes’ pedal steel, which offers Schmidt a worthy foil. It dips and swoons through the waltz-time “Nothing’s Alright” and blankets her vulnerable vocals in “No Great Leap” (“If being poor’s my life’s crime / My body’s prison’s eastern standard time”). Instrumentally, things get gnarled towards the record’s end – the droning, low-hanging psychedelic haze of “Tirade of a Shitty Mom” and the naked slide notes of “Snow and Rain.” Yet, One Hundred Dollars is a band that sounds best putting their downbeat, idiosyncratic stamp on traditional roots forms. Forest of Tears is unrepentantly bleak, but some bummers are better than others and this one’s among the best of the year."