Crash Vegas

  • Crash Vegas
  • Red Earth (Risqué Disque/Atlantic) 1989 
  • Stone (London) 1993 
  • Aurora (Can. Sony) 1995 
  • Michelle McAdorey
  • Whirl (Can. Queen of Cups) 2000 

This Toronto quartet which initially included Daniel Lanois’ bass-playing sister Jocelyn, once of Martha and the Muffins, played a lovely brand of spartan atmospheric folk-rock somewhere between the Cowboy Junkies and 10,000 Maniacs. On Red Earth, what’s not played seems nearly as important as what is; the ample sonic space makes the sound feel big without a lot being played. It’s a perfect setting for Michelle McAdorey’s supple voice to shine, and it does. A cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Down to the Wire” provides another good point of reference. Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor (a former member of Crash Vegas) co-wrote nearly half the cuts.

Following the dissolution of the Risqué Disque label and personnel changes (Lanois left and was replaced by Darren Watson), Crash Vegas finally got around to releasing a follow-up. The listenable but uninspired Stone largely dispenses with the airiness that made Red Earth so appealing. It’s also more countrified, with splashy touches of pedal steel, earnest slide guitar fills, cluttered Hammond organ and mandolin frippery that chokes songs — and McAdorey’s voice. As if to compensate, she resorts to histrionics (notably on “Nothing Ever Happened”, which was co-produced by Butch Vig), and that blurs the subtlety of focus considerably. That said, “You & Me” is an intriguing hybrid of Concrete Blonde and the Gun Club, with a locomotive rhythm and spirited cowpunk vocal harmonies. “Keep It to Myself” is low-grade R.E.M. jingle-jangle, and “My City Has a Place” is breezy folk-rock. Nevertheless, melodic dexterity, the feathery strength of McAdorey’s affecting voice and sonic economy are all evident on the melancholic title track and the alt-country-lite “September Morning”. Stone closes on a promising note, with “Please Don’t Ask”, a mournful lilt that arrives as a relief from the album’s oppressive moments: “Please don’t ask me how I feel / Because I don’t want to know.” Exactly.

Moving to another label, the band set about making a third album. But when Watson and drummer Ambrose Pottie quit, McAdorey and guitarist Colin Cripps were Crash Vegas. Fortuitously, they contributed a song (“Pocahontas”) to the Borrowed Tunes Neil Young tribute album. The single charted in Canada, and encouraged Sony to rescue the band from label limbo. Good thing, too, since Aurora is a gem. The cohesion and air of naturalness is surprising in the wake of the patchy Stone. While still haunting the same alternative folk-rock byways, the band grasps its real strength, which is power in fragility. In all the right places, the guitar work is tentative and nervously edgy, the drumming is spare and willing to hold back when required. McAdorey voice is paradoxically more present in its exquisitely frail breathiness than it was in relative stridency. Even the lyrics are stronger. Throughout, McAdorey sounds like someone clinging to hope, not quite bereft but getting there. The poignancy of “On and On (Lodestar)” and “Weekend” gives way to the erotic shiver of “Beguiling” (“Put your fingers underneath my knees / Push me pull me to the wall”). Indeed, that whispery eroticism pervades the album — on “Linoleum” she sings, “Spread legs to receive from you / If I breathe in for you will you breathe out for me?” Even the awful emptiness of a terminated pregnancy (“Clinic”) is inhabited without mawkishness or polemics. This is the up-close discomfort and pervading sadness of characters trying to get by in a world that threatens to cut them off from emotional sustenance.

Aurora would prove to be their swan song. McAdorey and Cripps called it a day after a final tour. McAdorey released a solo album, Whirl, in 2000. Cripps joined Junkhouse.

[Dave Schulps / David Antrobus]