Friday, November 30, 2012

Strong and Free: Three New Albums from Canadian Singer-Songwriters

Singer-Songwriter Jon Brooks (Photo by Kevin Kelly)

It’s not easy being a singer-songwriter these days.  Especially in Canada, where there are just so many of them.  How do you separate yourself from the crowd?  Is talent enough to make a difference?  Does the label you’re on count?  If I had the answer to these questions, I’d be a successful singer-songwriter myself, instead of being content with playing my tunes to my wife and sons in the basement, and writing about the rest of the gang.

On Saturday night, I attended one of Michael Wrycraft’s tribute shows at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. This one celebrated the songs of Tom Waits.  It was in fact Wrycraft’s seventh Tom Waits tribute!  Performers like Scott B & Gord Cumming, Melwood Cutlery, Annabelle Chvostek and Chris Cuddy with Don Rooke took up the challenge of forgoing their own songs for those of Mr. Waits.  It is always a surprise to hear the lovely and gentle melodies that exist below the rasp of Waits’ own voice, and Saturday night was no exception.  Beginning with the amazing powerhouse who is Ariana Gillis covering “Bad As Me” there was no turning back for anyone.  The York University orchestral pop ensemble Copycat proved their name by simulating Waitsian vocalizing over some extraordinary instrumentation, and Jon Brooks closed the show by prowling around the stage like a wolf playing his Taylor and howling at the moon.  It was a wonderful night. 

It also demonstrated how hard it must be to be a singer-songwriter these days. After all, Annabelle Chvostek has just released one of the best albums of the year, and here she was singing Tom Waits songs!  I’ve had Jon Brooks’ CD Delicate Cages (Borealis Records) on my desk for a few months wondering what to say about it.  

I couldn’t initially get a handle on it but after his performance at Hugh’s Room, I put Delicate Cages back into the player to listen again.  It begins with gently picked guitar which introduces Brooks’ husky voice:

I saw the earth open up under a satisfied sky
I saw the homes not flooded shrivel up in fire
I saw them loot all the corpses and rape all the wives
I saw the cops shoot themselves, the law fell on its knees…
Why didn’t God help, why didn’t He even try?
Because, my dear, because we’re free…

These are big issues.  Political, theological, it’s the stuff that songwriters used to write about.  It’s the stuff of Woody Guthrie and early Dylan and Brooks isn’t afraid to tackle them.  He sings about “Fort McMurray” and “Mercy” and a “Cage Fighter” from Sarajevo or a “Son of Hamas”.  He sings in a raw voice accompanied by minimal guitar, sometimes joined by upright bass from Jon Phillips or a touch of violin (from John Showman), and on one track Lynn Miles sings harmony.  It’s all Jon Brooks though, singer, and songwriter, with a handle that finally became clear to me on my third listen.  He cares about what’s going on, he’s serious when he states “Until love and compassion enters all levels of politics, the folk singer remains fully employed.”  There’s going to be work for people like Brooks for the foreseeable future!

Barney Bentall performing in Mattawa, Ontario in 2010 (Photo by John Minkowskyj)

Barney Bentall is another Canadian songwriter who hasn’t been heard from for 4 years or so.  His new CD is called Flesh and Bone (True North Records) and was recorded at The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, British Columbia. It contains eleven self-written songs played by a tight band consisting of Rob Becker on bass, Geoff Hicks on drums, Rick Hopkins plays keyboards and Eric Reed adds mandolin, banjo and electric guitar.  Bentall plays acoustic guitar, harmonica and sings.  There are a few guests like Belle Starr’s Kendel Carson, whose fiddle adds texture to “St. Valentine’s Day” and several other titles, and Adrian Dolan who adds a variety of instruments throughout the CD.  Bentall writes his own liner notes which describe the album:

"Hello, I’m sitting in front of an outdoor fire up at the ranch.  It’s the end of a late August day and she was a beauty.  The Milky Way is jumping off the pages of the heavens and our dog Haddie is at my feet.  It’s one of those times where all seems right with the world.  This ranch has been a tempestuous Burton/Tayloresque affair at times and it’s fitting to write this note here as a good number of the songs have their roots in this land…"

He goes on to describe the tunes further, but the best way to understand them is to listen to them.  He only provides lyrics for the first two tracks, “The Outskirts of Buffalo” and “The Ballad of Johnny Hooke”. For the rest, you need to pay attention, and let the words work through to your subconscious the way records did back in the old days before it became standard procedure to provide a lyric sheet.  It pays to remember that Bentall named one of his early bands after a Lou Reed album, Legendary Hearts.  Not that he sounds like Lou at all – he’s much more musical than Reed – but his lyrical concerns are deep, as one might suspect.  The sound is folky, not unrelated to the work Jon Brooks does, although Bentall’s voice is lighter and more melodious.  Barney Bentall fills his sound, putting out a little more flesh on the bone.

Don Bray at the Barrie Folk Festival in 2011

Then there’s Barrie’s Don Bray.  He’s an ex-fireman who finds it easier to go into a burning building than stand in front of an audience with his guitar.  I am Myself was recorded live off the floor at Canterbury Studio in Toronto, with some additional tracks added at Meek Monk Studio in Orillia.   The songs are fairly standard singer-songwriter material, not dissimilar from the songs of any number of troubadours, but set apart by the marvellous dexterity of Bray as a guitarist.  The inner sleeve shows a portrait of the five axes Bray uses and they take a beautiful picture.  They also sound fine, especially in Bray’s hands. 

There are plenty of players on board for this album, Adam Campbell (drums), Andrew Collins (mandolin), Ray Dillard (percussion), Pat McPhail (double bass/electric bass), Darin Schott (violin), Alissa Wright (cello & vocals) and Burke Carroll on another bunch of guitars.  It’s the kind of album that makes a guitar fan drool; there is more than your money’s worth of dandy picking.  From time to time Bray’s voice reminded me of Bert Jansch but, like a Jansch album, it’s really the guitar work that matters here.  The songs grow on you once you listen to the exquisitely recorded strings.  I’m going to have to pay more attention to Don Bray in the future.

It’s not easy being a singer-songwriter these days.  Not only are there so many of them around Canada (and the rest of the world) there’s also the generations of folkies who have gone before.  And we compare the new ones to the old ones even if it isn’t fair.  These three gentlemen take a run at success by hanging their lives, loves, politics and talent out on the line for all to see and hear. 
– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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