Jim Bryson’s Fifth Business
Live At The First Baptist Church
By Jim Bryson
In his novel The Fifth Business, Robertson Davies defined the title as a reference to the name given in old-fashioned opera and drama to characters who were neither hero nor villain, but played an essential role in completing the tale – not central to the piece, but essential nonetheless.
It would be no insult to describe Jim Bryson’s position in the Canadian music scene as fifth business – not central (and not for lack of trying), but certainly essential to those paying attention. I first became aware of Bryson in the early 90s in Ottawa when he played guitar in the power pop quartet Punchbuggy. I recall arranging to meet drummer Adam Luedicke for a lunch interview at Denny’s. The whole band – Bryson included – showed up; less, I suspected, for the pleasure of my company than for the prospect of a music critic’s free lunch. Even then, it was obvious Bryson was out of place in the group – more introverted and thoughtful and less exuberant than the other three, it wasn’t too much of a surprise when he later bailed on the band.
What was a surprise was his re-emergence as a singer-songwriter in 2000 with his album The Occasionals. Nothing in his Punchbuggy catalogue would have prepared the casual fan for the depth and quality of his solo work. His songs were dark and nakedly emotional but also colored with a mordant streak of humor that was easy to miss within the music’s morose setting. Two subsequent albums – The North Side Benches (2003) and Where The Bungalows Roam (2007) – built on his songwriting as Bryson developed his gruff voice into an increasingly expressive instrument. None of those records set the heather alight, commercially speaking. But Bryson remains a favorite of his fellow musicians, who’ve tapped Bryson to add his fifth business touch to their work. Howe Gelb, The Weakerthans, Sarah Harmer and Lynn Miles have all collaborated with Bryson. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy duetted with Bryson in his video for the song “Somewhere Else.”
But his best-known champion and collaborator is Kathleen Edwards. Edwards has readily credited Bryson as one of the most important influences on her songwriting, and she’s brought him along as a member of her touring band, where he serves as keyboardist, guitarist harmony vocalist and onstage foil for Edwards. The fact that Edwards’ early success has by far eclipsed her influential pal was the subject of Edwards’ song “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” (“You’re cool and cred like Fogerty/I’m Elvis Presley in the 70s”). That’s Bryson in the glasses skating and scrimmaging with Edwards and company in the video for the song:
All of which is a long way of introducing Bryson’s new album, Live At The First Baptist Church. Beautifully recorded at an eponymous house of worship in Ottawa in February 2008 (with two tracks from a set at the Black Sheep Inn near Ottawa) before an attentive audience, the set could serve latecomers as a catch up tour through Bryson’s catalogue. All the best bits are here. At the same time, it documents an admirable desire by Bryson to toy with the treatment of his songs.
“All The Fallen Leaves” (reminiscent musically of Television’s “Prove It”) sees the singer eschewing the familiar understated delivery and pushing his voice hard. After flubbing the lyrics to “The Last Occasional,” Bryson redeems himself by biting down even harder on the later verses. “Impaler,” frequently a rousing show-closer, is presented in bare bones form, a neat trick – the hushed treatment renders the poisoned pen lyric even more venomous. “Firewatch,” one of Bryson’s finest compositions and one of several that employ his penchant for repurposing idiomatic language (in this case, radio operator-speak) for his lyrics, is wrung out for even more drama with an unexpected a capella interlude. And throughout the record, Bryson’s piano takes a more central role in dressing these songs in gorgeous ways.
What’s missing? Bryson’s penchant for offbeat solo covers (ex-Husker Du drummer Grant Hart’s “2541” and New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” have figured into his sets as encore numbers) doesn’t get an airing here. But with almost 70 minutes of the best of Bryson, recorded in peak form, any reservations would be quibbling.
Live At The First Baptist Church can be downloaded at Kelp Records. Very highly recommended.