Sunday, March 13, 2016

Of Wire and Wood: Two New Albums from Borealis Records

Tom Taylor, Shari Ulrich and Barney Bentall, a.k.a. BTU, have a new album with Borealis Records, Tightrope Walk.

"...a guitar is made of wire and wood’s just a tool when pushing comes to shove..."
Those lines come from a song I wrote a few years ago, but in essence it’s a true statement of how I feel about guitars. They are tools to make music with. In the hands of a gifted player, a guitar can bring an almost endless variety of emotions from both player and listener. On Friday night, Feb. 26, at St. Catharines FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Ron Sexsmith used his Taylor to display his incredible skill at songwriting. The following Monday night, Feb. 29, at Hugh’s Room, Simon Townshend owned the small stage, passionately attacking three different axes and a mandolin, and he had The Who’s guitar tech on hand to tune up. There’s no denying it: a guitar is a potent instrument, and probably the one thing that gives me the most pleasure in life apart from my family. That’s why these two new albums from Borealis Records are worth having around.

BTU is not British Thermal Units. It stands for Bentall-Taylor-Ulrich. That’s Barney Bentall, ex-Legendary Hearts, who after spending a few years as a cattle rancher has recently been hyperactive on the Canadian folk scene. Last year saw him release a solo album Flesh and Bone and take part in The High Bar Gang (a gospel bluegrass band whose debut album was one of the year’s highlights. Shari Ulrich was also part of the High Bar Gang, and she released a quality solo CD last year as well.) Tom Taylor hails from Vancouver where he was part of the band She Stole My Beer. Together Bentall-Taylor-Ulrich have crafted a folky new CD entitled Tightrope Walk.

Taylor starts things off with some finger-picked guitar, which opens up for his Stephen Stills-like voice on “Chased by the Devil.” He says that he had the guitar opening for a long time and it was “the first time [he] could recall [his] kids paying attention to something [he’d] written…” so he turned it into a song. I’m glad he did. “Long Lovely Love Affair” is a Bentall tune he recorded on Flesh and Bone; it’s given harmony and some gorgeous picking from all concerned. Shari Ulrich’s daughter Julia Graff and her partner James Perella produced the album with BTU and have surrounded the songs with a warm living-room sound. You can hear the fingers on the strings of the guitars, fiddles, and mandolins and the vocals are lovingly mixed. Ulrich and Taylor contribute three songs each while Bentall provides four. Shari’s “You Got Lost” is about remembering that all the money in the world doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. Maybe Donald Trump should listen and get lost! The album ends with “Disappearing," an old song of Barney Bentall's, written with Murray McLauchlan. Each of them get a verse, and they join together on the chorus. Beautiful – and it makes you push replay to hear the whole thing again.

The Bills also have a new CD out, called Trail of Tales. The Bills are Marc Atkinson (mandolin, guitar), Adrian Dolan (fiddle, accordion, piano), Chris Frye (guitar), Richard Moody (violin, viola, mandolin), and Scott White (upright bass). They all sing. Again, it’s mainly acoustic with plenty of guitar and other stringed instruments and great earthy harmonies. The title track is a fiddle tune with those harmonies, reminding this listener of The Band. There’s great interplay between these musicians, both instrumentally and vocally. They are well known for their virtuosity, and they pull no punches on this album. Each member of the group provides his composing talents on at least three songs, several are co-writes.

The songs range from the bouncy and humorous “Jungle Doctor” to the classical sounding instrumental “Wonder.” Out of the serenity of “Wonder” the band breaks into a rip-roaring country barn dance tune called “Hittin’ the Do.” Your feet will move for sure. The guitars come out for “Pebble Beach,” another instrumental which features a solo on the viola. How many albums can claim that? There are more instrumentals, and more harmonies to come. Bluegrass, a cappella, and a hint of country rock, the Bills do it all. They are two time Juno nominees, and Trail of Tales could lead them to another one.

A guitar is made of wire and wood, a mandolin, a fiddle, even a stand-up bass… all wire and wood. Combine those tools in the hands of fine craftsmen with good singing and you have a recipe for some dandy music. Either of these extraordinary new releases will draw you back time and time again.

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 with his wife.

1 comment:

  1. Shari Ulrich - the "U" word here. Thanks for the lovely review David!! I hope you can come to my Free Wheeling concert in Dundas on April 30th so I can meet you in person. I love the line about Trump! I wanted to add that in all of our identifying bands are in the present tense. The Legendary Hearts, the High Bar Gang, and She Stole My Beer are all going concerns. Life is full! Thanks again taking the time to listen and write a review. It's much appreciated by the trio.