Third time was indeed the charm for Blue Rodeo, as 1990’s Casino is where the band hit their proverbial stride.
In every long-running, successful band’s career, there will be a Goldilocks record: an unassuming release that, with time and distance, transcends being a fan favourite or critical darling and reveals itself as an essential distillation of a band’s catalogue and canon. The Goldilocks record came early in their run for Blue Rodeo. Outskirts, their honourable debut, tried too hard and too soon to define Blue Rodeo. Up against its massive hit “Try”, much of the rest of Outskirts feels like it’s searching for a personality and style that wouldn’t coalesce in the band until their sophomore album, Diamond Mine. A massive evolutionary leap forward, Diamond Mine is, for many listeners, Blue Rodeo’s outlier album: too esoteric, too long, and too moody for repeated listens (for me, it’s a desert island disc; I love it). As the old saying goes, the third time was indeed the charm for Blue Rodeo: 1990’s Casino is where the band hit their proverbial stride: not too country, not too pop; consistently great songwriting and trap-tight playing, Casino is the sweet spot where Blue Rodeo became a band.
Talking to Michael Barclay in Maclean’s on the occasion of Blue Rodeo’s 25th anniversary in 2012, Greg Keelor acknowledged that, “for a lot of people [Casino is] their favourite Blue Rodeo record,” citing the influence producer Pete Anderson had in its creation. Anderson, an American producer renowned for his work with Dwight Yoakam, came into the Casino sessions with an economic mission: no more than ten songs in total and no song over the four-minute mark. “Everything [Pete Anderson] put on [Casino] he thought was a single,” Keelor told Maclean’s, “He didn’t want any sort of filler.” Though he may not have gotten his way with song lengths (four of the ten songs cracked the four-minute mark, but just barely), Anderson’s keen ear, plus Keelor and Jim Cuddy’s songwriting ensured that Casino was, relatively speaking, an album of all killers.
Casino was a sharp right turn from the extended solos, country noir mood, and atmospheric interludes of Diamond Mine, the record it followed. On paper, Anderson’s decision to put keyboardist Bob Wiseman’s solos on a leash seemed counterintuitive; Diamond Mine was a veritable playground Wiseman’s signature improvisational playing, and by far the most distinctive element in Blue Rodeo’s playing. Though I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Wiseman’s contributions, I understand the practical reasons behind the producer’s choice. Keeping the playing tight and focused best served Casino’s songs of love, longing, and the long winding road. Mid-tempo openers “Til I Am Myself Again” and “What Am I Doing Here” were simultaneously the most pop (the former) and the most country (the latter) Blue Rodeo had ever sounded, marking the two poles the rest of the record would ricochet between. Along the way, Keelor and Cuddy would land on rollicking rockabilly (“You’re Everywhere”), torch-song balladry to rival “Try” (“Montreal”), honour their songwriting heroes Lennon and McCartney with the psychedelic pop breakdown of “Two Tongues”.
No matter the musical detours Casino takes along its brief path, it is a pitch-perfect example of pacing and sequencing. Of all Blue Rodeo’s studio records, only Five Days in July comes close to (but never surpasses) Casino’s top-to-bottom consistency. Proving that old habits die hard, Casino’s follow-up, Lost Togetherand the aforementioned Five Days in July reverted back to extended jams, but they brought lessons learned from the Casino sessions forward, fortifying their distinctive brand of alt-country. Still, even though their biggest commercial and critical hits were ahead of them, for my money, Casino hit the musical jackpot that its forebears and predecessors couldn’t: a Goldilocks record of consistent, career-best songwriting wrapped in a concise, endlessly repeatable collection.