Album Review: The Cactus Blossoms - Easy Way

Somewhere in the world, there are what amounts to a handful of copies of a CD with a green cover.

Self released in 2011, the cover art to The Cactus Blossoms is both a little crude or rudimentary, but also kind of charming—in the center are the titles of the album’s 10 tracks, sandwiched in between the faces of Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, both wearing cowboy hats, with an effect placed over their photographs to blend their shirts into the green background, and more or less distort their faces.

Presumably, the cover to The Cactus Blossoms was generated using actual photographs, too, based on the awkward cropping1 of Torrey’s left ear.

Recorded at a studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota—also home to the legendary though tumultuously run studio Pachyderm2, The Cactus Blossoms had a look, and a sound, that didn’t exactly lend itself to either the year 2011, or to what you’d expect to hear coming out of Minneapolis.

I had originally heard of the duo when I was still working at KYMN, the radio station based out of Northfield; the woman who was the host of the ‘drive time’ program from 4 to 6 p.m. had glommed onto The Cactus Blossoms due to the appearance of Randy Broughten’s steel guitar—Broughten himself is considered by some to be a Southern Minnesota musical legend, as a founding member of the band The Gear Daddies.3

Six years later, The Cactus Blossoms turn up as one of the musical guests on “Twin Peaks: The Return,” performing their smooth, but eerie song “Mississippi” at the end of the third episode. The song was taken from the band’s 2016 album You’re Dreaming—an album with a night and day aesthetic difference when compared to the self-titled album. Torrey and Burkum, now heavily coiffed and pensive, look out from behind a window—the glass reflecting trees and a neighborhood street against it.

Following their appearance on the stage at The Roadhouse4, The Cactus Blossoms’ popularity began to rise—You’re Dreaming became difficult to find in Minneapolis record stores, and “Mississippi” was tapped to be included on the “Twin Peaks: The Return” soundtrack. It was during this time that I remembered that album with the bright green cover from so many years before, and I tried looking for it online—only to come up with almost nothing.

Almost all traces of The Cactus Blossoms has been scrubbed from the internet—the Bandcamp site that I am almost sure the group had for the album is long gone, and the album is not mentioned anywhere on the group’s own website. It’s not available from the iTunes store, and save for a smattering of YouTube videos, and old reviews of the album, the only place you may be able to obtain a copy of it5 is from the person on Discogs selling it for $65.

Three of the songs from the self-titled album resurface on You’re Dreaming—and from what I can glean, in the five-year interim, the band traded in its heavy twang and youthfulness for a what can be described as a slightly more refined sound—though still deeply rooted in an Everly Brothers style of old ‘country and western’ music.

Arriving three years after You’re Dreaming and two after an appearance on “Twin Peaks” attempted to break them out of being a regional band, Torrey and Burkum have returned with Easy Way, another collection of 10 tracks, ambitious in their nature to push the duo into what you could call a slightly more modern sound—it isn’t a ‘rock’ record by any stretch of the imagination, but through flushed out instrumentation and arrangements, Easy Way puts a little bit of a sharper edge on the band’s typically traditionally leaning western stylings.

In October of 2018, The Cactus Blossoms played an intimate show in Northfield at the Northfield Arts Guild theatre, as part of the organization’s ‘411 Concert Series.’ The show was sold out well in advance—but when I say an ‘intimate,’ I’m referring to the size of the venue; a very small converted church, the Guild theatre holds a little over 100 people, give or take.

The ‘theatre crowd’ was too polite for Torrey and Burkum, who were not used to the silence in between songs as they re-tuned guitars—Burkum commented that they were used to clubs where there was always a ripple of chatter, and encouraged the audience to talk amongst themselves if they wanted.

For a band that has, more or less, forsaken its debut album—or ‘false start,’ if you want to call it that, their set leaned very heavily on You’re Dreaming. I think they played all 10 songs off of it, plus a Beatles cover that they had contributed to a ‘Minnesota Beatles Project’ collection a few years back. They also, thankfully, dipped into some of the new material from Easy Way—a record they were very coy about discussing, only alluding to the fact that something new was ‘coming soon’ from them.

There may have been other new songs played during their show in Northfield, but I for sure remember Easy Way’s lead single, “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy,” and one of the other, infectiously written tracks, “Downtown,” were among those included.

Whether intentional on the band’s part, Easy Way is sequenced in such a way so that the more ‘traditional’ sounding material is on the album’s second side, leaving the first side full of songs that are produced in an effort to, not so much push the band away from their original aesthetic, but it is the side that finds Torrey and Burkum embracing an expanse in sound.

The album, as a whole, is made up of surprisingly infectious tunes, but Easy Way opens with what is probably its strongest and most energetic, as well as having the most potential to grab the attention of those who are not already familiar with The Cactus Blossoms.

Conjuring imagery of the Southwest the way they did a number of times on You’re Dreaming, the album hits the ground running with “Desperado,” one of two rollicking moments in Easy Way’s first three tracks; it’s powered by the steady strums of Page Burkum’s acoustic guitar, along with what makes almost every Cactus Blossoms track so enjoyable—the gorgeous harmonies that Burkum and Torrey form so effortlessly.

The album’s second track, “I’m Calling You,” is equally as rollicking, but in a less direct way. It’s more playful, both in its arrangement as well as its lyrics.

“Please Don’t Call Me Crazy,” even if unintentional on the band’s part, seems like an A&R rep’s dream for bringing a band with a regional following to a larger audience—loose and bombastic in structure and sound, it finds The Cactus Blossoms at their most electrified throughout the entire album. Built around a groove that works itself up to an explosive refrain featuring only the titular phrase repeated a few times, of any of Easy Way’s 10 tracks, it’s the one, for good reason, that most clearly screamed ‘lead single.’

A name that I was surprised to find surface in the liner notes for the album is that of Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who doesn’t contribute musically, but is credited as a co-writer on two of Easy Way’s most restrained moments—the slow burning shuffle of the album’s second single, “Got A Lotta Love,” and it’s stunning closing piece, “Blue As The Ocean."

“Got A Lotta Love” ushers in a stark contrast to the relatively energized first three tracks, and it gently leads the first half of Easy Way into a contemplative conclusion with the album’s titular track, which is one of the album’s standout moments, thanks to the dreamy, swooning atmosphere Torrey and Burkum create musically, as well as the way they overlap their voices during the song’s big refrain. It’s also one of the most traditionally ‘Western’ sounding tracks on the album.

The album’s second half begins very strong—if there was another song that demanded to be played on the radio it’s “Downtown.” At times, mildly self-deprecating, lyrically speaking, out of all the tracks on Easy Way, it is the one that carries the most tangible weight, as it gets into classism—a surprising subject for a pop song. However, it’s ambiguous enough to walk the line between being a heft political statement and an “Uptown Girl” for 2019.

After the slinking groove of “Boomerang”—the kind of song that masterfully captures the lonely, desperate tonality that conjures imagery of a dark honky tonk barroom, people swaying slowly, illuminated by neon liquor signs, a haze of Marlboro smoke above them, the album arrives at what is probably one of its finest moments, “See It Through.”

Musically speaking, maybe I’m drawn to “See it Through” because it, whether the band realizes it or not, shares a number of similarities with the You’re Dreaming slow burn “Mississippi.” Powered by a light percussive shuffle, Burkum’s steady acoustic guitar strumming, as well as a mournful pedal steel and a twangy lead electric guitar, it’s one of those songs where the harmonies that Torrey and Burkum deliver together, especially during the song’s refrain, is just almost too much—it’s a gorgeous, moody, simmering track, and among the band’s best.

Easy Way wraps up with the very old-timey country and western sounding “I Am The Road,” and the aforementioned gauzy, slow motion ballad “Blue As The Ocean.”

Even with completely forsaking their debut album, and looking at You’re Dreaming as their proper introduction to the world, The Cactus Blossoms are a relatively young band—in that regard, their songwriting has matured quite a bit in the time between albums, but there is room for even more growth—there are moments where the next line is almost a little too predictable, but even that gives a built-in sense of familiarity with the song.

Albums that are this utterly enjoyable from beginning to end are rare—Easy Way is damn near on the cusp of being flawless, as it finds Torrey and Burkum working within the spaces where pop music, country and western, and rock all converge, as well setting their sights on a national audience without completely forsaking the region that has supported them thus far.

1- This was either cropped by someone who was uncertain how to use Photoshop, or someone who was uncertain how to use scissors.

2- In Utero, by Nirvana, is perhaps the most famous record recorded in Cannon Falls, Minnesota; Throwing Copper by Live was also committed to tape there, as well as Comfort by Failure, and Rid of Me, by PJ Harvey.

3- I guess, in their time, The Gear Daddies were a big deal—even appearing on “Late Night” with Letterman at one point. If I were from Minnesota originally, maybe I’d give a shit about them; also, the band name ‘The Gear Daddies’ makes me very, very uncomfortable.

4- Also known as ‘The Bang Bang Bar,’ it’s worth mentioning that in “Twin Peaks: The Return,” all of The Roadhouse stuff was filmed in one long day on a soundstage in Los Angeles, and that the façade of The Roadhouse is a family restaurant (burgers, etc) in the Snoqualmie/North Bend area of Washington—where many of the exteriors of “Twin Peaks” are located.

5-  My boss may or may not have a copy of this CD somewhere in her house, buying it on a complete whim from a thrift-style shop that used to be in Northfield called The Local Joint. Either way, the tunes are on her computer still. The disc may never turn up.

Easy Way is out now on LP and CD via the band’s own Walkie Talkie imprint.