Steel sounds sweeten Cuff the Duke's cuts

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      Fans of pedal steel guitar will be pleased to know that there's a lot more of it on Cuff the Duke's new CD, Way Down Here, than there was on the alt-country quartet's 2007 predecessor, Sidelines of the City. The fellow coaxing all those sweetly soaring sounds, Dale Murray, didn't mind the extra workload.

      “I guess there's more steel on this album because the songs lent themselves to it,” says Murray, calling from downtown Toronto before an in-store appearance at Criminal Records. “I think it was a little more open-sounding album than the last one, and the steel had room to breathe in there.”

      A devotee of American pedal-steel greats such as Ben Keith (Neil Young), Sneaky Pete Kleinow (the Flying Burrito Brothers), and Greg Leisz (damn near everyone), Murray has only been playing the challenging instrument for about eight years, gradually getting the hang of all those strings, foot pedals, and knee levers.

      “A lot of people who want to play just buy a pedal steel and think they can jump right into it,” he explains. “But I eased my way in with the lap steel, got my intonation down, and then bought a learner's pedal steel and just kept easing my way into it.”

      Way Down Here was coproduced by Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor, who invited the band to record at his farmhouse studio, Lost Cause, last January. Photographs in the CD's booklet show the quartet—which includes singer-guitarist Wayne Petti, bassist Paul Lowman, and drummer Corey Wood—standing out in the winter wonderland of rural Ontario.

      “We pretty much got snowed in,” says Murray, “which sort of kept us focused, I think. We couldn't go anywhere, so it was great.”

      Murray's emotive pedal steel is well suited to new tunes like the bittersweet “Rocking Chair”, which explores, like Death Cab for Cutie's 2005 pop hit, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, the sad beauty of growing old and passing on. Murray also steps away from his main instrument long enough to use a baritone guitar to bring a slight spaghetti-western vibe to Way Down Here's closing track, “Never Mind”.

      “Ennio Morricone, and all those type of bands like Calexico, have been a big influence on us for sure,” he reports. “It seems on the last album we had that influence on there as well. It always sort of creeps through in little ways.”

      Cuff the Duke plays the Biltmore next Thursday (September 24).