Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Borealis of Canadian Talent

James Gordon performing at Kitchener's Registry Theatre in 2010.

There’s a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, and (wait for it) a flock of seagulls! But what does one call a whole bunch of Canadian artists? Well, I’d like to make a pitch for a borealis! That’s right, a “borealis of Canadian musicians.” Why? Because the aurora borealis is the name for the Northern Lights, and Canada is…northern; and because Borealis Records is responsible for so many of the records released north of the 49th parallel! You shouldn’t really call what these people do ‘Americana’ but no-one seems to have affixed the ‘Canadiana’ tag to anything, so we’ll just call them ‘roots’ music and be done with it. But ‘roots’ could mean anything couldn’t it? I mean, we all have roots in something or another and so, too, do these releases. First up Linda McRae.

Linda McRae was a member of the band Spirit of the West through two platinum and three gold records before she left to resume her solo career. She has worked with producers like Gurf Morlix, Colin Linden and Linda & Marc L’Esperance. Fifty Shades of Red is a compilation featuring tracks from her four previous solo albums. There’s a distinct country sound from the start, and it’s not surprising since it’s “Strength, Hope & Love” from the Gurf Morlix produced Crying Out Loud. This is followed by some hill country banjo and McRae’s flexible voice weaving mountain magic on “How Can I Bring Her Back.” “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” is Jean Ritchie’s classic folk song, with the addition of some twangin’ guitar from Stephen Nikleva. There’s a bit of gospel in “Be Your Own Light” with dobro from Doug Cox and ‘soulful riffing’ from The Sojourners. The album has something for everyone, including a stunning package designed by A Man Called Wrycraft. I was at the show where the cover photo was taken, and must say that Linda McRae was a highlight of that evening!

Laura Smith’s Everything is Moving marked a return to recording after fifteen years. This album has been out for a few months now, but it’s such a timeless collection that it deserves being remembered. She is accompanied by guitarist Tony McManus, pianist John Sheard, bassist David Woodhead and Guido Basso on flugelhorn on a selection of original and traditional Celtic songs. Ms Smith has just the voice for it; you hear the years of experience, of pain, and work, suffering and joy in that deep honest and pure voice. Produced by Paul Mills and Laura Smith the sound is absolutely gorgeous. Listen to the first track “Lonely Waterloo” and you won’t be able to turn it off.

James Gordon is a legend in Canadian music; he’s been on TV, radio, and stage solo, with his sons, and as a member of Tamarack back in the day. He’s a producer, songwriter, playwright, activist and theatre director. How he has time to record an album, amidst all the other activities he’s involved in, is a mystery. Nevertheless last year he managed to write a new bunch of songs and get them gathered on Coyote’s Calling. It’s traditional folk music, banjo, guitar, some other stringed instruments and vocals, and songs about what’s happening. “We’re the Ninety-Nine”, inspired by the Occupy Movement, leads things off: “there’s a new conversation in the global cafĂ©, let’s all sit down together, and find a better way.” If only we could! The next song is a tribute to Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada who passed away in 2011, who served as a mentor, and friend to Gordon. The lyrics are adapted from Layton’s last letter to his friend. A good album for northern Woody Guthrie types.

We recently reviewed an album by a band, The High Bar Gang, of which Shari Ulrich was an integral part. Now she’s presented us with her latest solo work Everywhere I Go, produced by her daughter Julia Graff as part of her Masters programme at McGill’s Schulich School of Music. Let me tell you, this is the best student project I’ve ever read/heard/seen! Let Shari tell it, “I can blame it all on my daughter! Julia came home from McGill University in 2013 asking if she could engineer and produce an album for me as a project for her Masters in Music in Sound Recording. Fortunately, the thrill of this unparalleled opportunity overrode the panic of having to write an album in a month…” And she did, they did it, mother and daughter have created a beautiful piece of work. There was never any question about Shari Ulrich’s voice, or her ability to create good music. This is her eighth solo album after all, not counting records with Barney Bentall, Pied Pumkin, and others. It seems that the apple has not fallen far from the tree, as Julia has manipulated the raw material into a lovely hour of music. Beautiful.

In every borealis of Canadian music there’s something a little bit different. This is the one. Mike Stevens is a singer, harmonica player whose last album was duets with Matt Anderson recorded in Banff. This time he is joined by Ghanaian musician Okaidja Afroso for a project called CanadAfrica, with an album titled Where's the One?. If you’re used to African music at all, you’ve either heard the tight vocal arrangements of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or the bluesy guitar of Ali Farka Toure, or possibly the frenetic percussion that led Ginger Baker to Africa. This album is different, and yet captures many of these influences. Stevens starts with a harp riff, then Afroso adds finger snaps and vocals on a gently rolling lullaby called “Abifao.” Then we get Afroso on cajon, while Stevens blows a blues, “Mecurachrome Blues,” the note says, “mecurachrome will fix ya (it might sting a little)” and indeed it does. The next tune has finger-picked acoustic guitar and harmonica, it is shaped like a blues by Mississippi John Hurt, but doesn’t sound like him at all. Afroso plays gourd, gyil (Ghanaian xylophone), conga, on the rest of the album, and sings throughout. Whether singing in English or Ghanaian he is charming, and Mike Stevens is never less than incredible. A brave but accessible record!

Finally there’s Poor Angus, a Celtic band from my hometown of Hamilton. “A Celtic Band”? “From Hamilton”? Aye, thass-right! And it starts with the pipes. Oh, sure there’s guitar and bass along with bodhran and drums but it’s the pipes, the pipes that are calling in Gathering. Takes me back to Legion picnics and parades of my youth, right here in this city. They played the pipes at Frankie Venom’s memorial service you know! Poor Angus’ lead vocalist Joel Guenther has a voice not unlike Alan Doyle from Great Big Sea. He sounds great over top of harmonies from Andrew Bryan, Brian LeBlanc and Ross Griffiths. And the tin whistle is haunting throughout “Never Come Back.” The one sheet that came with this CD tells me they “are a blend of The Pogues and Mumford & Sons with great instrumental chops.” OK, I’ll accept that, except they’re nowhere near as…ummm…loose as the Pogues, nor as wildly antic as Mumford, or any of his Sons. Poor Angus are controlled, and masterful, with subtle tunes, and decent lyrics. They even cover another hometown hero, doing Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers” to great advantage.Whether the term “borealis of Canadian musicians” catches on or not, we have this wonderful northern label to thank for a world of music! Starting right down the street from where you live.

– 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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