Frontier Index with the League Champs and Beneath Augusta at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (February 4). $5. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
At this point, it's completely understandable that the members of Frontier Index are no longer comfortable with the "alt-country" tag, and the "cosmic country" handle isn't much better.
Sure, the Stratford hombres wear their Gram Parsons influence on their flannel sleeves, and that comes across clearly in listening to the eight-song demo they recorded soon after forming back in 2003. Yet if you've seen Frontier Index playing around town, it should be apparent that they've got something a little more soulful going on than your typical No Depression twangers.
They might throw out the Burrito Brothers arrangement of You Don't Miss Your Water for an encore, but what sets them apart from the cowpunk crowd is that the guys in Frontier Index actually know the William Bell version on Stax that Parsons copped.
"Everyone thinks of Gram Parsons as this country-rock innovator," says singer/guitarist Corey Hernden, a mild-mannered Exeter grade school teacher by day, " but to me he seemed more interested in that area where country meets soul, and that's where we line up."
Hernden describes himself as one of those music freaks who's always checking the composer credits to trace the music back to its source.
"When I got to James Carr, his singing was so raw and powerful that it just knocked me flat. I mean, Otis Redding is great, but his stuff doesn't get to me like James Carr's - it hits really hard. That's what we'd like to do with our music."
Since October, Frontier Index have been working toward that goal with producer Andy Magoffin (Hidden Cameras, Constantines, Royal City), re-recording the songs from their promising early demo session, with the added benefit of having two years to fine-tune their material while upstaging touring artists like Preston School of Industry.
According to Hernden, it was hearing what Magoffin did with Royal City on Alone At The Microphone that made Frontier Index want to make the trip to London to record their debut album, which is scheduled for release in June.
"Since we've been playing all the songs for so long now, we wanted to record the album live off the floor. After hearing that second Royal City album, we thought Andy would be good at that, and we were right. We just set up, he got everything sounding great and then stepped back and let us do our thing. The whole thing took about 10 days to finish.
"Sonically speaking, it's a huge leap forward for us. Everything is bigger and beefier, but there's still this amazing warmth and presence to it. I'm fairly confident that anyone who hears our new stuff won't immediately think 'alt-country. '"
That Frontier Index seem to be trying to distance themselves from the whole alt-country thing might not go down well with the folks at their label, Rainbow Quartz, who were apparently planning to release their self-titled debut on the label's hayseed subsidiary, Turquoise Mountain. Oops.
It might be time to rethink any proposed sleeve designs that involve horses, Colt .45 revolvers and trains.
"Hey, I like George Jones, Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson, but I think the alt-country trend has passed its best-before date. When we were discussing the album artwork, I didn't want to lead anyone in that direction, so no horses, no trains - none of that stuff.
"I just want to stay away from anything that might date or pigeonhole our music, and let people make up their own minds based on what they hear."