Everyone has something they'd call underrated. It might be the best friend who's awesome but can't find a significant other who believes the same, or a beloved television show that gets canned after one season.
Most often, though, it seems you hear the term attached to bands or their records and songs; it's a preemptively defensive qualifier when someone talks about something they love despite others' lack of regard for it, an introduction to something you haven't heard or an apology for different tastes. Maybe you've heard the Pretty Things described as an underrated version of the Rolling Stones, or Buffy Sainte-Marie's wonderfully weird Illuminations underrated relative to her more famous folk numbers or her appearance on Sesame Street.
Recently, though, I read an argument by an author whose name I've forgotten that suggested the concept of underrated was, well, overrated. Society and culture, argued the writer, would take what was needed when it was needed, and the rest of art and its output—the stuff that didn't get churned inside of the mainstream consciousness and into recognition—was only useless flotsam. Because no metric for valuing art existed beyond its appreciation by society as a whole, nothing could be overrated or underrated; culture accurately rated itself, always.
If that's true, I'm not sure how to explain Constant Companion, the second album from Toronto songwriter Doug Paisley. Constant Companion's nine songs are, dare I say, mostly perfect, understated and terribly underrated folk-rock. "End of the Day" is a guileless workingman's reflection on a late afternoon's escape, and "Always Say Goodbye" is a sweetly tempered tune about making feelings count while you're still alive. On "Don't Make Me Wait," a tender and trembling duet with "1234" chanteuse Leslie Feist, Paisley reflects on doubt and confidence and the feeling you have when someone says they love you and you don't believe them.
Each of those plots likely sounds like the setup of some maudlin country hit, but they're not: Paisley writes and sings with a delicacy that makes you dig for meaning, where you treasure each word like some unearthed gem. It's slight music, too, as languid and easy as a Sunday afternoon nap. Even Paisley's one concession to a bigger audience, the organ runs of The Band's Garth Hudson, are muted and restrained, meant more for texture than exclamation.
It's not surprising, then, that Paisley isn't as popular as he deserves to be, because his music doesn't pander or simplify. It's careful and personal, the sort of stuff that stands up best to close scrutiny. But that stuff has had its eras, especially in the days of California folk-rock like Jackson Browne or even Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Thing is, society and culture seem to have largely left behind writers like Paisley, sincere and studied craftspeople who make diligent, deliberate music. Others in this (out-)caste include Richard Buckner and Marissa Nadler, musicians who play without the gall necessary for modern country radio. They don't sport the stylized sounds of their closest but much more celebrated kin Bon Iver and Iron & Wine, and they have too much subtlety for that broad crossover brand of folk-rock that includes Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes and The Avett Brothers. Maybe Paisley is simply overlooked because his music is out of touch with the music of the moment, whatever that may be.
As its name suggests, maybe Constant Companion is too steadfast, too bedrock-solid to be subject to the mercurial movement of current cultural crazes. These are the kind of songs that are indeed constant, the sort that will outlast crazes and fads and, you have to think, eventually find the ears they deserve, much like a reissue of a long-forgotten album. Not underrated, then; perhaps just not rated at all.