Although her new songs are written with a band in mind, Oh Susanna is a single individual, Suzie Ungerleider. Born in California and raised in Vancouver, she's now based in Toronto. Her music falls under the generously broad rubric of alternative country: her early material tended toward grim balladry (some called her Canada's answer to Gillian Welch), and she still favors a turn toward the morbid. She does well when representing relationships between different generations of women, and some of her songs, like the beyond-seductive, fiddle-based "Down by the Quarry," could fit easily onto the more countrified Lucinda Williams releases.
What sets Oh Susanna apart is her awareness of where all this stuff comes from. The words "country-rock" tend today to connote a don't-even-try-to-understand complacency, but in its beginnings the genre had greater ambitions. Ungerleider knows the musicians who first got the idea of answering rock's hedonistic attempts at transcendence with a lyric-based form of expression. Hovering at the periphery of country music, it used landscapes, quasi-religious sentiments, and romantic archetypes to tell its stories. Oh Susanna reaches back to tap into the country-styled music of Bob Dylan, of Gram Parsons (often regarded as alt-country's key forerunner), and of a band that Parsons influenced into making some country-rock music of its own — the Rolling Stones.
Oh Susanna's "Right by Your Side" has a keyboard-based groove that would've been right at home on an AM radio in 1971. On her slower numbers, she shows off a meaty voice, sounding a bit like a female Mick Jagger in "Wild Horses" mode. And the only cover on her recent eponymous CD is of an obscure Dylan gem called "I'll Keep It with Mine." Her musical moods tend toward the romantic — even if she does muse at one point about the possibility of cutting off an IV drug user boyfriend's arms and feeding them to buzzards — and her lyrics are focused and full of sharp country turns of phrase ("Her one big love is now a little white lie").
Oh Susanna is at the Ark on Tuesday, August 24, as part of the club's free Take a Chance Tuesday series. She'll share the stage with another Canadian act, Luther Wright and the Wrongs, and they'll be accompanied by a few acoustic instrumentalists. If you've never tried one of these concerts, they've got a great atmosphere, informal yet informed, that showcases up-and-coming musicians at their best. Bring canned goods to donate to Food Gatherers, and you'll get a raffle ticket for a drawing held at the end of the evening that gives away CDs and other worthwhile things.