Tongue-in-Cheek Vows isn’t the first record from Toronto’s Sam Cash, but it’s the one where he finally learned the benefits of knowing what you’re after before the tape starts rolling in the studio.
“In the past we just went in and did it,” the outgoing songwriter says, on the line from Hogtown. “There was never any thought of ‘What do I want to do with this record?’ This is the first one where I sort of had an idea going into it. I was like, ‘I want to make a big-sounding rock record.’ With, of course, the sensitivity inherent in the songs that I’m writing.”
Helping Cash achieve his goal and then some was Canadian indie legend Ian Blurton. As producer, Blurton’s first bit of advice to the singer was that he and his backing band—the Romantic Dogs—needed to tighten up. Taking that seriously, Cash worked with Blurton to fashion an album that comes out swinging with the turbo-wound rocker “Cast Away”.
“Blurton produced the Weakerthans records, and that’s sort of an avenue that we’re in,” Cash says. “We’re a rock ’n’ roll band, but the songwriting is very much at the centre of things.”
There is indeed no shortage of El Camino guitar crunch on Tongue-in-Cheek Vows, with the band sounding capable of matching Thin Lizzy shot for shot on “Carmen”. But Cash doesn’t root himself in one era: “I Know You’re Only Laughing” is an authentic stab at pump-it-up new wave, and the acoustic closer, “Won’t Think Twice”, is a killer shot of last-call Americana.
There are also all kinds of smart little touches. Check out the spliff-king reggae strut of “Radio Waves”, where the Tropicália guitars sound like a week in the Caribbean with Vampire Weekend.
“Some of my favourite records are ones where you’ve heard them 20 times, and are still picking out things and sounds that you’ve never heard before,” Cash says. “If you listen to the record once, it’s straight-up roots-rock-pop tunes. But you can also dig a bit deeper, and there’s some really interesting musical interplay happening. On a surface level, it can be easily digested if that’s all you want.”
That’s a long way from Cash’s earlier work, which delivered the kind of buffed and warm roots rock perfected by the likes of Blue Rodeo.
He says he had a good reason for shooting higher with Tongue-in-Cheek Vows.
“It’s really hard making records with the record industry in the state it’s in,” he opines. “I don’t know how you get people’s attention and get people to notice you. These songs were written over a couple of years, and a bunch of different influences went into them. I was worried that things would sound scattered, and this wouldn’t sound like a consistent record, but I believe in the album as an art form.”
If that sounds like something one expects from rockers of a different generation, it’s not by accident. Part of the charm of Tongue-in-Cheek Vows is that Cash seems like a man from another time. In the tradition of icons like Tom Petty, his lyrics are often centred on what he likes to call “slightly bruised characters”.
He’s quick to note that his love of those battling the darkness is tied more to an admiration of classic songwriters than to any trauma from his past.
“It’s funny that I’m drawn to those characters,” says Cash, who’s the offspring of beloved Toronto roots-punk pioneer Andrew Cash. “As I’m sure you know, my dad worked in the music industry when I was younger, but I didn’t have this crazy upbringing—it was more really interesting. I always wanted to do this, but was under the impression that you had to be really sad to do it.
“And,” he continues, “that you had to have a lot of demons to have a career in songwriting. You actually don’t—you just have to watch and observe other people and friends. You have to be interested in people.”
And, presumably, know what you want once the tape starts rolling.
Sam Cash & the Romantic Dogs play the Imperial on Wednesday (March 23).