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An Early Harvest: Eastern Canada’s Bands & Bards

Bruce Cockburn
Small Source of Comfort
[True North Discs (2011)]

Lynn Miles
Fall For Beauty
[True North Discs (2010)]

Lunch at Allen’s
[Marc Jordan, Murray McLauchlan, Cindy Church, Ian Thomas]

More Lunch at Allen’s
[Linus Entertainment (2010)]

Po’ Girl
Follow Your Bliss
[Self-released (2010)]

The Wilderness of Manitoba
When You Left the Fire
[Tiny Ogre Music (2011)]

Here’s a harvest of noteworthy artists working mostly from eastern Canada. Some are new to American ears, but others, like Bruce Cockburn and Po’ Girl, have been issuing vibrant music and touring various U.S. circuits on Canada Council for the Arts grants (Socialism knows no shame) for years.

Bruce Cockburn has, as he notes in his exceedingly catchy toe-tapping opener “The Iris of the World”

mostly dodged the dogmas of what life is all about
Passing through the iris of this world.

The close acoustic combo, bright and jazzy picking, lively percussion, savvy string collaborator (recall upright bassist from BC’s first live album, Robert Boucher) in young nu-jazz violin creatrix Jenny Scheinman both challenge and complement Cockburn’s compositional and instrumental strengths. Playing material lusty for life’s sensations but mystically circumspect within an open-hearted and open-minded Christian discipline, this disc recalls his trailblazing work of the 1970s and 1980s. No rehash here, though. Cockburn’s current muse is based in Brooklyn as the carbon-footprint conscious eco-poet defiantly carries on a gas-guzzling long distance commuter romance from his home in Kingston, Ontario. Our poet doesn’t divulge where he ditched “The Bike” (“My Beat”) that pedaled him through the multi-culti neighborhoods of Montreal throughout the aughts.

A fanciful narrative sung through the perspective of a contrite Richard Nixon, reincarnated and living as a single African-American mom in a low-income housing project, falls flat lyrically, but is carried on a hooky melody. The three wizardly plucked and Tibetan-bowled and chimed resonating acoustic marvels that close the disc (“Parnassus Fog,” “Ancestors,” and Cockburn’s 1980s-era concert closer “Gifts”) come close to communion. “Boundless,” co-written and co-sung with Annabelle Chvostek (formerly of Winnipeg’s the Wailin’ Jennys), who also adds peppery mandolin, is the runaway pulse of this delightfully beating and pumping musical engine of invention. Gary Craig’s drums and percussion scintillate throughout without ever getting too pushy.

True North labelmate Lynn Miles resurfaced a year ago on the Canadian circuit with an earthier set of new songs, less beholden to her youthful dalliance with El Lay pop aspirations. Miles still writes catchy melodies, but the grit lodged in the nooks and crannies of “Cracked and Broken,” the hard-won wisdom of “Three Chords and the Truth,” or grace-filled witness of “Little Bird” echo with the bracing candor of her mid-1990s masterpiece Slightly Haunted (Rounder, 1996). Producer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Lefeuvre keeps the textures fresh and inviting, although Jim Bryson’s deep timbre duet harmony on “Goodbye” reveals how much more fulfilling Lynn Miles’ songs could sound if more frequently inhabited by voices other than her own. Miles’s go at craggy latter day Dylan crooning vintage Americana replete with orchestra swelling on the closer “Time To Let the Sun” cracks me up.

Where has Murray McLauchlan spent the last decade? After building one of the Canadian folk and bar-rock scene’s most consistent discographies, McLauchlan’s early solo albums on True North and the crunchy rootsy records made with the Silver Tractors have mostly fallen out of print. Hard Rock Town is an especially sorely-missed back catalogue item. The iconoclastic Canadian bands and younger artists who broke with cool to redefine it by paying tribute to Gordon Lightfoot’s songbook on Borealis Records’ Beautiful in the early aughts had to doff their caps to McLauchlan, who retrieved a lost Lightfoot gem “Home From the Forest,” reminding North Americans that homelessness has been claiming human souls on the streets of the wealthiest countries in the world as far back as the white picket fence 1950s. McLauchlan’s own opus on broken down Canadian laborers, Gulliver’s Taxi (True North 1996, U.S. 1999) seemed to be his solo career’s swan song.

Apparently McLauchlan has been meeting with kindred Canadian songwriters Marc Jordan, Cindy Church, and Ian Thomas at a favorite Ontario diner named Allen’s to continue developing their songcraft in sympathetic company. More Lunch at Allen’s is their second CD collection of smooth and comforting harmonies. The musicianship is all tasteful and in service to the songs, derivative though they may be of 20th Century blues to pop, original in authorship if not carrying any pressing messages or urges to subvert any dominant paradigms. Ian Thomas vamps funky on his “I’ll Let You Know” with Jordan’s lead vocal knocking it out of the park. A bit of fellow native Canadian Robbie Robertson creeps into the slinky steel-string bent notes and grainy Band-like harmonies. McLauchlan resurrects the title track from one of his early solo records, “Sweeping the Spotlight Away,” evoking a time when clown icons like Emmit Kelly were household names (and portraits on velvet). Cindy Church’s “I Never
Got Over You” and her collaboration with McLauchlan on “Anything But Friends” are acoustic guitar ballads meant for the flickering hurricane lamps of intimate cafes and thinking man/woman’s country charts. Jordan’s vocal chops on “Promises” have only gained in come-hither soul appeal and seductive prowess. McLauchlan leads his Lunch at Allen’s retinue out back to the delta bayou for his porch-pickin’ inspirational “The Great Beyond.” The horses will find their ways home now.

Allison Russell is surely one of Canada’s homegrown songwriting treasures, with an organic soulful delivery as a singer almost too jazzy for the Boho Folk Neo-Soul of Po’ Girl’s audience’s palates.  Cofounder Trish Klein (of the Be Good Tanyas) has departed the band, but the current line-up includes Awna Teixeira (Basque-Big Sky songwriter and gutbucket bass, accordion, banjo and guitar harmonist) along with Benny Sidelinger (an Olympia, WA luthier and multi-instrumental adept) and Mikey “Lightning” August (vocals, drums, and keys). Russell’s new Po’ Girl model follows its bliss and hooks up again, as on past road shows, with Chicago neo-soul band JT and the Clouds. Chris Neal’s horn arrangement on the Chicago sessions’ opening track “Kathy,” a poignant homage by Russell to her mother, whose own misplaced song muse became her songwriting daughter’s cautionary anthem on maintaining emotional and mental health, brims with vitality and is buoyed by Jeremy “JT &  the Clouds” Lindsay’s unforced soulful harmony.

Russell’s budding clarinet adds just the right grace accents to Awna Teixeira’s “Pink Shoes,” one of a set of autobiographical childhood losses chronicling her formative years in Montana, whose music nevertheless reflects the life force and enduring spirits of friends too young to have passed on. The title track to this deceptively weighty material is the flimsiest and frothiest camouflage for Po’ Girl’s clear rejection of the darkly dead-ended streets of East Downtown Vancouver, BC, covered if never succumbed to on its first three albums.

If Po’ Girl has followed their bliss eastward across the Canadian Rockies and plains from tar sands to muskeg, then new Toronto band The Wilderness of Manitoba seems to musically imagine an expansive westward drift. The spacious, if melodically sparse, baker’s dozen of drinking songs, tone poems, madrigals, rounds, and unprepared found instruments in the machine all collaboratively composed and recorded by Will Whitwham, Scott Bouwmeester, Stefan Banjevic, Melissa Dalton, and Sean Lancaric lack a center. They may even lack any obligation to finish what they begin, as the sonic drip and old vinyl surface noise of needle idling at disc’s edge illustrates on “Reveries en Couleurs,” the closing track that clocks in at nearly one fifth of the album’s total running time.

However, there are playgroup and tree house charms aplenty with some lovely harmonizing of voices and instruments old and new. The record’s opening track “Orono Park” is chummy and conventionally rocking as any hippie harmony yet, overlaid with subtle electronic atmospherics. Breezy jug band atmospherics. Stefan Banjevic’s blossoming cello and BJ Cole-like spacey pedal-steelscapes (played on lap steel) along with Melissa Dalton’s singing bowls offer embedded aural surprises once the listener survives the downer drudgery of such early sequence filler as the trans-Siberian rail-inspired “November” along with the uninspiring “Hermit” and “St. Petersburg.”

Overly restrained drummer Sean Lancaric brings The Wilderness of Manitoba into sharper focus when his whizzing tom-tom patterns are allowed to wrist-riff some beats. Melodically stillborn expensive sounding guitar sketches like “Golden Beets” and the opening two minutes of “Native Tongue” tank until Lancaric lifts the lagging tempo into flight. “Summer Fires,” “In The Family,” and wayward Beach Boy harmonic vocal fragments on “Sea Song” prove a steadier sequence foundation if moved up to follow the opener “Orono Park” instead of being obscured by the trans-Siberian wastes.

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

[Edit: corrected a personnel inaccuracy in the Po’ Girl paragraph.]

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