Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #15
Cries That Are Never Heard
Justin Brake is a skilled songwriter. He composes music that has the timeless, universal sense found in popular standards, with simple but never simplistic melodies and unified structure that stands up whatever the arrangement imposed on the music. His lyrics tell simple stories of life and love that recall the popular ballads of other Canadian artists like Dan Hill and Susan and Terry Jacks.
It doesn't hurt that Brake also comes to this project with a strong singing voice and the ability to use it very effectively. Brake has a powerful pop rock voice that adapts equally well to a hard-driving fast rocker or a slow sensual love song. This is a voice that is supported and enhanced by the full arrangements on this release but would sound just as good accompanied by only guitar or piano.
At times the songs here feel as though Brake wants to use every tool he has, just because he can. The music tends toward being over-arranged and overproduced. In general, though, he seems to have kept a rein, if a loose rein, on this tendency so that while often powerful the sound is never overpowering.
If he continues in his musical career, whether as Change of Pace or under his own name, Justin Brake will be an artist worth watching. Based on what he has done with Cries That Are Never Heard, it will be interesting to see what directions Brake takes as he grows as an artist.
New Middle Class
New Middle Class is husband and wife duo Barbara and Mike Borok, supported by a half-dozen musical friends. The music is difficult to classify, not so much because it crosses or mixes genres as because it takes its own unique direction. Reading the information sent along with the CD, it seems that the Borok's think they are doing folk music. Far from it. If anything, this music seems more some variation on pop rock from a bygone era, perhaps the Seventies.
In some ways, this music seems to defeat itself. The lyrics are well written. The music is competently written and performed. The whole thing is very pretty. It's all too perfect, too easy to let slip into the background like comfortable wallpaper. This is classic easy listening music, the sort they play on some radio stations during drive-time so listeners can have a non-intrusive background while driving home from work. That's a shame, because some of these lyrics should intrude, should be heard.
A simpler, less lush treatment might better serve these lyrics. Here are some lovely personal stories, some social commentary, even some disturbing concepts. Pulled back to a more folk or singer-songwriter approach, these songs might work better at the level of story.
New Middle Class is a unique release with some interesting things to say. It seems to me that the songs here might have worked better if the Borok's had trusted their words and music more and stuck to the idea that they are folk or at least singer-songwriter artists rather than hide behind orchestration that stops just short of being overdone. While it's easy to understand why these songs win awards, I would prefer to see the ideas they contain made more accessible.
Ernie Hawkins is a fine blues guitarist whose playing reflects a deep respect for the players who have gone before. Hawkins' performance is quiet, even restrained, with a relaxed down-home country feel. While these songs demonstrate that Hawkins is a skilled guitarist with a sure knowledge of the blues tradition, he also has the class to not throw in a lot of fancy licks just to show that he can. Hawkins lets the music carry itself, lets the blues energy flow from his guitar instead of forcing it and imposing upon it his own personality.
If I had to categorize, I would say that, over all, this is less deep south black blues than country blues. The sound here is of Jimmie Rodgers or Doc Watson or the more countrified Woody Guthry. This is the sound of dirt farmers filling the empty spaces in their lives with music. Yet, in fact, Hawkins covers a broad spectrum of the blues in this release. The range of songs in itself makes this set interesting to hear.
By modern popular standards, Hawkins may not be considered the best of singers. His vocals are raw and untrained, more like a very talented amateur than a professional. Here, his vocals add a certain authenticity to an already authentic sounding set of songs. The sound here is not so much of a modern recording as of a Thirties field recording, although admittedly a lot cleaner.
Ernie Hawkins has been playing the blues for more than three decades. During this time, he has learned from some of the best, including his mentor the Rev. Gary Davis. In this release, dedicated to the memory of Davis on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Hawkins demontrates that he has truly learned his craft well.
Live at the Harvest
You start listening to the first song in the set and you start thinking. You think this singer can't be some white boy from Canada. You think this has to be one of those accomplished old-time bluesmen from deep in the American south. Has to be. Hey, I've met the man and even I was starting to think that way. "Just Got Back" is just that authentic, just that flawlessly performed and true to the genre. It's the sort of performance that can leave a listener disappointed with almost anything that follows.
Although the first song has set a high standard, the rest of the set rises to the occasion and even the most discriminating listener is unlikely to be disappointed. Fines has the good fortune to have some of Canada's finest instrumentalists and vocalists working with him during this live concert. Given his talent and theirs, it would take a supreme effort to have this music turn out bad. While it might be easy for such an aggregation of talent to just slide, these musicians have clearly presented their very best work, creating a wonderfully crafted set of blues music.
A pleasant surprise is that there are also vocals by two of Canada's most accomplished female artists, Suzie Vinnick and Georgette Fry, adding another level of diversity to this performance.
Rick Fines and Friends Live at theHarvest should be a welcome addition to any collection of folk and traditional music by Canadian artists. It both continues in a long tradition of folk music in Canada and represents the best of today's independent artists.
Steve Schellenberg's playing is more than competent and his music wraps itself around the listener like a favourite cardigan on a winter day. Schellenberg includes an apology for his harp playing, but even that is competent and fits well in the songs where it shows up. This is a tastefully produced set with a well-balanced mix that provides the listener with a comfortable ambience in which to assimilate Schellenberg's words and ideas.
It's the words that set this release apart from the run of the mill. The writing here is literate, literary, and perhaps at times might even be considered intellectual in the higher academic sense. Some lyricists write simple songs. Some write colloquial stories like might be told on the back porch or around the kitchen table. Much of the time, the music takes precedence over and often subsumes the story. Most of the time, the story depends on how well the singer tells it and how willing the musician is to let it be heard. Schellenberg moves beyond that simple storyteller role and writes very compressed short stories enhanced but not buried in the supporting music.
As a set, these eight songs have a unified, consistent feel that is rare in contemporary recordings by writer-performers. The set works very well as a whole, each song bringing something new to the whole. If I were to compare, I would say that Schellenberg's presentation falls somewhere between Eighties Paul Simon, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Loving Spoonful in their Nashville Cats mode. Supported by a comfortable instrumental bed, this quiet, compelling storytelling style provides the ideal setting for the pictures Schellenberg paints with his words.
Anyone interested in collecting the best of independent Canadian music should be sure to add this release to the shelf. Steve Schellenberg is a talented Canadian writer, instrumentalist, and singer who deserves to be recognized.
The songs on this release have an easy feel about them, like a gentle Canadian snowfall, filling the air then settling gently into place. Even after several times listening to this music, it comes as a surprise when it ends. There is nothing here to jar or shock the listener. Rather, the folkish music of Canadian duo Freedom Junction tends to relax and comfort. In my opinion, this is a good thing. In our troubled times, it's good sometimes to settle into some comfortable easy-listening music.
This music has a definite central Canadian feel to it, a blend of North American Irish melodies and rhythms overlaid with simple story -telling vocals. The closest comparison to describe the music of these Quebec artists is the Ontario group Tanglefoot. Although Tanglefoot is a much larger group, the lyrics and music here have very much the same down home Canadian feel. Missing is Tanglefoot's tendency to include referents to local history in the songs.
Over all, this release gives the sense that these musicians have not yet found their own particular niche. The selection here is not just eclectic but disparate. Sounds range from faux-Irish to Jim Croce to Jimmy Buffet, from old folk to new country to rock and roll. It's an interesting blend of styles, but it could use a bit more consistency in the overall sound. For a folk or singer-songwriter release, there are also some excesses in production, such as over-instrumentation and use of barely relevant sound effects.
Those who are interested in hearing new music by artists in the same general context as groups like Tanglefoot may want to add Maxwell's Version to their collection. Over all, it's an interesting if uneven example of the new Canadian folk music.
Spirit of the Inland Sea
Whether performing for adult audiences or for children, Archibald is known as a teller of stories in song. He is quite popular in his local and regional area, providing entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking performances. This release is, in that sense, more of the same. That the songs are built upon the single theme of Great Lakes shipping brings unity to what might otherwise have been a diverse set of stories.
The songs on Spirit of the Inland Sea are the result of a commission by Eastern Ontario's Bruce County Museum to celebrate the unique marine heritage of the Bruce Coast. As such, at least some of the songs feel more academic, indeed almost pedantic, than the work of Rogers or Lightfoot. Some, and "The Ballad of Pirate Bill" is a prime example, sound like musical history lessons couched in musical terms to appeal to grade school children. There's nothing wrong with that, but it certainly gives this release a different atmosphere than most collected songs of ships and the sea.
Spirit of the Inland Sea may be of as much interest to those concerned with the history of Great Lakes commerce and the lives that revolved around it as to those seeking original Canadian folk music. The writing, performance, and production of this release is better than many independent releases. However, and it may be a result of their academic origin, with the possible exception of "Wind and the Chill" and the two instrumental numbers, these songs don't have that indefinable something that will raise them above the run of the mill.
By the same token, this release makes a pleasant enough listen and can provide an impetus for family or classroom discussion of Great Lakes history as seen from the Canadian shore. Who knows what positive directions that might lead?
Sharp and Sweet
For some whose native tongue is English, the songs on Sharp and Sweet may at first seem to be sung in another language. Sung in the Scots dialect, this enchanting collection of folk songs may take several listens before the words become less than incomprehensible to the non-Scottish listener. This is not all bad. As when listening to excellent performances in any foreign language, the words need not be understood for the power of the music to reach and move the listener.
As a group, Anne Combe (vocals), Fiona Forbes (vocals), Scott Murray (guitar and vocals), and John Blackwood (guitar and vocals) bring to this music a level of performance to which many artists may only aspire. The music on Sharp and Sweet is uniformly beautiful. The instrumentation is pulled back and conservative. The vocals are strong and feature some lovely harmonies on most songs. This is acoustic folk music performed with restraint and respect for the tradition. Some songs are nationalist in nature. Others are love songs. Others reflect a philosophy of everyday life. All have a story to tell. In these performances, the stories are well told.
Sharp and Sweet may be of some interest to those interested in English literature, and in particular that line of poetry that was written in the Scots dialect. It may even interest some who are interested in the poetic edge of Scottish nationalism. However, this release is most highly recommended simply as an excellent performance of beautiful folk music. As such, it would make an excellent addition to any collection.
It's a grey rainy day in my part of Canada and, immersed in the resonance of Mike Campbell's voice, I'm thinking how ideal this music is for rainy day listening. Campbell has a deep rich voice that brings me back to artists like Paul Robeson or Ivan Rebroff. The voice is full and bright and, even in the saddest of songs, reflects an inner joy. The songs are stories, not so much folk as the stuff of light opera or the music theatre. Like his singing, Campbell's writing is clear, interesting, and to the point.
Campbell's lyrics, on a variety of very human themes, are as interesting to read as they are to hear. The stories have the universal appeal of a good country song and humour that ranges from Robert W. Service to the sort of folksy American popular humour we've hardly heard since the Fifties. The musical presentation only serves to enhance the already well-written stories.
With music ranging through folk, country, popular theatre and other styles, Sad Eyes is an interesting mix of well-written story songs performed with just the right level of drama by a man with a powerful voice. I recommend adding it to your collection to save for a rainy day.
Two Nights Solo
In Ontario at least, Terry Tufts is prominent enough in the folk music establishment to be an influence on younger artists. His performance on this release helps to demonstrate why this should be so. An accomplished player whose work on a variety of instruments has added polish to releases by many other artists, Tufts brings style and finesse to this live performance. It's in the three instrumental pieces that he especially shines, but the range and virtuosity of his instrumental work underlines every song on this release.
In my review of the initial 1998 release (2 Nights Solo: Terry Tufts Live @ Rasputin's), I had complained that Tufts' voice tended to sound "reedy and irritating" with a "thin quality" over all. I had wondered at the time whether this may have more to do with recording or mixing technique than with the quality of the actual vocals. On this release, the problem no longer exists. Tufts' voice is strong and pleasant to hear. He still seems to be stretching for some notes, but that's something that can't be fixed by a remix.
Tufts' performance on this release is better than many singer-songwriter artists I've heard, with strong, accomplished playing and better than average vocals. Reading the lyrics, I now see that they are better and more tightly written than I had earlier thought. In fact, Tufts is quite an able storyteller.
Anyone interested in contemporary folk music in Ontario might want to add Two Nights Live to his or her library. It's an excellent representation of the work of Terry Tufts at mid-career. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here and to look back to this release by comparison.
Terry Tufts is best known as a folk artist. In fact, in Ontario he's a bit of a folk icon. His multi-instrumental talents have helped make many folk artists' recordings sound just that much better. Tufts, however, is not that easily tied to a single genre. He'd not be out of place in today's new singer-songwriter category. Much of the music on this release has a middle of the road pop feel, if tinged with the sort of folk-pop epitomized by Dan Hill or the later Gordon Lightfoot. Certainly Tufts' work has folk roots, but its branches reach for broader horizons.
As I listen to the songs on this release, I hear more of a western style. I mean the sort of popular western music that grew out of but didn't necessarily adhere to the so-called folk tradition. This music was most popular some sixty to seventy years ago, performed by artists like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Wilf Carter. While this impression may be reinforced by the fact that I've recently been immersed in just such western music, I believe it is supported by the vocal and instrumental approaches Tufts takes on Walk On.
I had the pleasure a few months ago of hearing Terry Tufts and Kathryn Briggs perform live, including several of the songs from Walk On. I was impressed by this pared-down version of the songs. As a live performer, Tufts has a captivating presence and the songs come across not just as music but as interesting stories. The music on this release is not so simple. Including Tufts, Walk On features a baker's dozen musicians filling out the ground behind his vocals. The sound is full, but never so lush as to detract from Tufts' role as storyteller.
Walk On is a well-crafted set of songs by one of our most respected songwriters and instrumentalists. That he's also a very good singer is a bonus. This release by Terry Tufts will make an excellent addition to any collection of Canadian music, folk or otherwise.
Been there and gone.
Hamilton, Ontario is increasingly a hotbed of singer-songwriter activity as more local artists become known across the province and into the rest of Canada and the United States. That this increasing recognition of Hamilton artists grows out of a supportive musical community is evident in Mike Daley's Been Here and Gone. The musicians involved include several local Hamilton songwriters of rising prominence, including co-producer Rob Lamothe.
For Mike Daley, the result of this cooperative environment and the support of his friends and community is a classy, well produced set of fifteen songs. That's not to say that all is good with this release. While the sound is mostly slick and hard to fault, there are spots where it just seems to stumble. These awkward spots detract, however slightly, from the overall impact of this release.
In this case, at least, I'll admit that I may be nit-picking just a bit. In general, this is a strong release with excellent production and well-crafted music. However, I think there are some problems with Daley's lyrics. In several places, Daley seems to have difficulty getting his words out. One might imagine that Daley's just not that strong a singer, but the rest of this release suggests otherwise. I think the problem may be that Daley has left some of his lyrics an edit or two short of final polish. He's saved by the lush musical presentation that backs up his vocals.
While I think that Mike Daley has some room to grow as a songwriter and especially as a lyricist, Been here and gone. is an interesting and sometimes challenging release. The production is strong, as is the instrumental treatment. The vocals, if sometimes hesitant, do the job. The lyrics may need some fine-tuning, but they are generally quite good, especially in the more poetic songs. It will be interesting to hear what Mike Daley does next.
Keep an Eye Out
Jeff Krebs is hard to pin down. His music is wide-ranging, reflecting an eclectic mix of influences from the country and bluegrass songs he learned as a child in Michigan's Upper Peninsula through Latin American rhythms, Sixties folk music, and pure pop music. This is music not really tied to genre, yet it feels as though it should be easier than it is to categorize. The closest I can come is to say that it falls somewhere along that continuum between Sixties folk-rock and contemporary folk-rock. Maybe.
In both performance and lyrical content, this feels like old music. Although the songs are more reflective of later decades, this release evokes Fifties radio programs with their easy mix of musical genres. Listening to these songs, I keep getting flashbacks to artists as diverse as Xavier Cugat, Ritchie Valens, Bob Dylan, Donovan, James Taylor, The Drifters [Sixties version], and several late Fifties and Early Sixties rock and roll bands.
After a rollicking and varied set, the listener is walked back to the door and out of the theatre into the street. When all is said and done, it's been an enjoyable hour of music.