Album Reviews: Cowboy Junkies' Kennedy Suite, Melody Walker & Jason Groopman, Jasper Sloan Yip

Cowboy Junkies - The Kennedy Suite
"Oh Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely / When you’re pointing a gun at the President” sings Andy Maize towards the end of the Kennedy Suite on a song originally released by The Skydiggers in 1997. “I’m no flunky with a rifle / I’m an N.R.A. Golden Boy / I’m a Genius Forging a Legend.”

The fifty years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy have seen no shortage of artistic expression dedicated to the memory of Camelot. That assassination had as much impact north of the border as it did in the United States and the latest release ostensibly from Canada's Cowboy Junkies (though it's really a collaboration album) is an ambitious song cycle that chronicles the man and the events of the time.

The album’s fifteen tracks tell the assassination’s story from the perspective of a series of interconnected characters and those stories are told with the help of some of the band’s formidably talented friends: in addition to The Skydiggers, there are guest appearances from Doug Paisley, Lee Harvey Osmond, Reid Jamieson, and Martin Tielli to name a few.

The song’s perspectives vary widely and the musical styles shift with them: the jazzy I Got a Bullet for You captures the conspiracy theory nature of the era with a wide array of guests. Secret Spy Decoder Ring is a straight ahead rocker told from the playful perspective of a child.

The album’s songs unfold along a loose but intertwining timeline. While the first few start early in the day by the time we get to Parkland—not quite half way through the full collection, and told from the perspective of a hospital worker—the President is dead.

We’re gradually moved into post-assassination territory with the poignant Disintegrating (the only song on the album to feature Margo Timmins’ voice at the forefront) and Senior Prom before culminating in the events of the days immediately after the President's death..

Those days lead to one of the album’s finest moments, when Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is given voice by Andy Maize in The Truth About Us, a song that chronicles the American dream and optimistic sentiment of the the times. “Let’s settle up on boot hill / To the view we adore” Maize sings at the song’s start before moving on to a later refrain of “Oh Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely / when reporters are carrying your coffin.”

As a concept album, The Kennedy Suite succeeds where other similar efforts might have failed in capturing a historic era. There are no rose coloured glasses here: Slipstream sees Martin Tielli sing about the complex duality of Camelot with lines like “Buy an election / get the girl / while the girls are gone / have more than one” that allude to Kennedy’s numerous affairs. This is followed  by news clips covering the assassination of Martin Luther King and making reference to the eventual death of Bobby Kennedy. Camelot may have been sunny, but the Cowboy Junkies are looking in the shadows too.

Highlights on the collection include Lee Harvey Osmond’s Parkland, the Skydiggers’  Truth About Us and Martin Tielli's performance on Slipstream. It really is a collection that should be listened to in full though.

The Kennedy Suite is a rich, complex work that rewards a close listen. Grab this, sit back with a good set of headphones and spend an hour with an album that succeeds on just about every level: it’s a lyrically rich, well constructed, musically versatile tribute to a time when America was the land of hope and glory when, as The Skydiggers put it, “Every girl and boy could grow up to be the President / Or grow up to be the President’s killer.” 

The Cowboy Junkies Kennedy Suite can be ordered from Maple Music. The Cowboy Junkies and their friends are performing two shows at Toronto’s Winter Garden theatre on November 22nd (sold out) and 23rd with guests. If you’re in the area, it’s not to be missed. Tickets can be bought from Massey Hall.

 

Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman - We Made it Home

In the era of Mumford & Sons, Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman would be easy to dismiss as just another band with a mandolin: don’t do this, because you’ll miss out on one of the most entertaining albums by a duo that in a quite a while.

The album opens with the title track with a bright bluegrass sound with Walker on guitar and vocals and Groopman. Walker’s got a bold voice with a gentle twang and she leads through most of the album, but Groopman does a good job of showing that this is no one trick pony when he takes the lead on songs like Retinue.

Mixing original songs that riff on classic themes with a small number of covers, there’s much to like here. Paul Simon’s Graceland sounds instantly familiar but unique in the hands of the duo. They really shine on the original tracks though: highlights include the feminist themed Yellow Haired Girl, the story of boxer Billy the Champ (accompanied by some fine finger picking work) and the more maudlin Beetlegeuse.

As a debut album for the duo, this is a strong start. If you like traditional bluegrass with a bit of a gospel sound, this is an album you need to add to your collection.

Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman's debut We Made It Home is available now and can be ordered directly on iTunes.

 

Jasper Sloan Yip - Foxtrot

Well known around Vancouver, Foxtrot is Jasper Sloan Yip’s follow up to his fantastic solo debut Every Day and All At Once. While that earlier work positioned Jasper squarely in the singer-songwriter with a pop tinge genre, Foxtrot sees the young musician expanding his sound and exploring new directions.

If the album’s title doesn’t make it obvious, Jasper’s a Wilco fan and the influence of that band’s seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album shows here. It opens with a rich soundscape before launching into the straight ahead relatively simple instrumentation of It Must Be True. The album’s second track kicks the door down with Jasper’s electric guitar on lead and plenty of cymbal smashing drums and synth for a backdrop.

The rest of the album continues to alternate between these two sonic extremes, but never without losing its overall coherence. It’s a tribute to Jasper’s talent as a song writer that the noisier can sit next to the quiet and not sound out of place.

Horseshoe is a standout on the album and a work that’s been a long time coming to record: Jasper’s been playing it live for almost three years now. Parallel Lines is another song that shines, lying on the more electric dynamic side of the equation.

Foxtrot is a richer more complex work musically than Jasper’s earlier album, and it’s nice to see the songwriter grow and branch off in new directions. The songwriting talent remains the same, but it’s richer for the new sonic landscape. This is a solid sophomore album from a very talented songwriter. Grab it now.

You can order Foxtrot directly from Jasper's web site.

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Tags: Cowboy Junkies, Jasper Sloan Yip, Kennedy Suite, Lee Harvey Osmond, Margo Timmins, Martin Tielli, Melody Walker, Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman, Reid Jamieson, Skydiggers

Comment by Skot Nelson on November 5, 2013 at 9:23am

A podcast with some background information about the Kennedy Suites.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.