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February 10, 2002

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It’s been said that the best way to remain essential and cutting edge is to do exactly what the average Joe least expects you to do. High Unita High is the very sort of album that’ll keep things vital, for both Jeremy Chatelain (who’s best known for his work holding down the low end of Jets to Brazil), and for Jade Tree Records as a music-finding machine.

High Unita High is exactly the sort of album you’d think neither Chatelain or Jade Tree would have any part of. With both so strongly associated with the post-hardcore pop world, the pedal steel, the folky acoustic guitars and the downright twangy lead vocals take the pair in a direction 180 degrees from expectations. That alone makes Cub Country’s debut something worth sitting up and taking notice of, but this album’s strong enough to make it a contender even if it was something everyone saw coming from 100 miles away.

Chatelain, who plays all instruments on High Unita High, isn’t the sort of guy who’s going to win accolades from the No Depression crowd – his work isn’t bound, gagged and beaten by tradition, thankfully – but there’s no denying its unavoidable roots in the Country idiom. Then again, there’s certainly not the concessions made toward cowpunk crossovers on this record either. Chatelain’s kicking it his way and his way alone. His way’s just way that’d sound as comfortable strumming on a back porch, with rhythms as loose as a screen door and melodies as familiar as the faces just on the other side of the fence. That’s not to say that Cub Country’s boring, however: while comfortable, Chatelain’s don’t nestle into ruts worn by the wagon wheels of alt-country types before him. Whether he takes boot-scoot bass lines, haunting pedal steel and salt-of-the earth delivery of classic country with indie-kid overtones ("St. Louis"), or comes forth with a bit of melodic neo-folk that’d be just as welcome in Britain’s new acoustics set as alongside American indie folk acts ("What Would You Say to Me"), Cub Country is about honest songwriting. There’s no dynamics, no flashy guitar amplification, no slick production work on High Unita High; It’s all pure, simple and delicate songwriting.

Much of the triumph of this album belongs to Chatelain, though Jade Tree’s association with him isn’t anything to shake a stick at, either. High Unita High isn’t just an oddball album from the label: It’s the first step away from the confines of the punk and indie world in which it made its name. It’s not just a bold step in new directions, but one that proves Jade Tree knows music and not just indie. The label’s taste is sound; With a few more diverse titles like this one, Jade Tree can’t be anything but a major force in the indie world.


Matt Schild