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Like Ridley Bent's past records, Rabbit On My Wheel reads like a collection of short stories, showcasing the Western Canada based Country artist's keen fascination for characters whose life on the straight and narrow rarely lasts past the nearest exit to a short, crooked road.
On Rabbit On My Wheel, the 2009 CCMA nominee and 7-time BCCMA winner's storytelling and songwriting chops are sharper than ever. But where Ridley's 2005 MapleMusic Recordings debut, Blam, and Buckles and Boots, his 2007 followup on Open Road Recordings, ranged far and wide across the continent, this time out Ridley sticks a little closer to his life at home and on the road in Western Canada.
Although the tales are still as tall as they come, and the characters as large as life or larger, the cast of hard-drinking, fast-driving characters Ridley unleashes on Rabbit On My Wheel tend to be a shade less hell-bent on self-destruction than they are with keeping their lives between the lines and out of the ditch.
While that may be so, musically Rabbit On My Wheel definitely kicks it up a notch or six from Ridley's last record. "In my heart," he says, sounding for the world like a character from one of his own songs, "I rock." So does Rabbit On My Wheel...
Recorded in Vancouver's Factory Studios and Nashcroft Productions in Ashcroft, BC with returning producer John MacArthur Ellis (Jane Siberry, Dustin Bentall, Jeremy Fisher), the album brings together the same crack musical team Ridley hit the road with after releasing Buckles and Boots. It also finds Ridley still hip deep in a passionate love affair with old school Country, but where many of the songs on his past records have come together largely during recording sessions, these show the distinct marks of having been dragged back and forth across the country a few times. "The band's tighter," Ridley says bluntly. "We worked out a lot of these songs live and only had about a week off after a nice, long tour with Corb Lund before we went into the studio in December 2009."
As tight as they are, there's still an off-the-cuff immediacy to the record that's a consistent hallmark of Ellis' production. "I like to maintain the spontaneity on the record," Ellis explains. "Some producers grind you down to get what they want out of you to the point where it's like, 'well, why don't you go and play the !!#?@*!! thing yourself?' I spend a lot of time selecting musicians. I know what they're going to bring to the table and I just kind of wrap my arms around that. And the better Ridley gets," Ellis adds, "the better the band gets."
Rabbit On My Wheel also benefits from a collaboration that began shortly after Ridley's relocation to Winnipeg in 2008, with guitarist/songwriter Chris Dunn. "Him and I did a lot of writing and working on the songs. Before this I'd get the songs, go in to the studio with the band and work it out. Having a guitar player there to bounce ideas off in the pre, pre production was very valuable. He's a big part of the album."
Channeling the high-energy performance ethic of artists like Dwight Yoakum and Little Feat, Ridley and his band tear a deep strip off the joint with tracks like "Square Your Hat", which features a guest appearance by renowned Canadian guitarist Luke Doucet (Veal, Sarah McLachlan), "Good Looking Country", a song inspired by Ridley's one and only, who he moved from Vancouver to Manitoba to be with, and the album's closing track "Burning Down Barns", on which every player in the band gets a chance to wail.
As ever, there are quieter moments as well. Ridley's never afraid to pepper his records with a few thoughts on love and loneliness - and his evolving cast of moonshine-running, racecar-driving malcontents tend to know their way around the ladies as well as they do the back roads of the west. Of course these are love stories told the way only Ridley can; tracks that run the gamut from hard and bitter to hardly better, including a beautifully rendered, deliberately down-tempo take on the classic Dickey Lee song made famous by George Jones in 1962, "She Thinks I Still Care".
While much of Ridley's new material is drawn from real life experiences he's gathered up on the road, Rabbit On My Wheel still has its share of shady characters, jackknifing tractor-trailers and whiskey-fuelled bar fights. And for those who identify strongly with Ridley's less reasonable characters - the ones who tend to prefer to stir things up with a pistol in one hand and a bottle in the other - there's The Blood Trilogy. A companion EP recorded during the same sessions and co-written with Dunn - a highly satisfying three-song western epic of violence and vengeance informed by Ridley's ongoing fascination with the bleak worlds of writers like John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy.
Simply put, whether it's love going strong but wrong in "Livin' With Her Ex", the straight up hooks of the album's title track, or the three way struggle between Junior Johnson, the whiskey and the wife, on lead single, "I Can't Turn My Back On the Bottle", Rabbit On My Wheel has everything listeners have come to expect from Ridley Bent and more - A smoking twelve-song set chock full of fast cars, fine looking ladies and fist fights that finds Ridley burning through a landscape of big country skies, with one hand on the steering wheel and one eye on the bottle every mile of the way.
A beat-poet cowboy that can sing a broken hearted country song [that will] make you want to cry. Ottawa Citizen"