Music from the Other Canada – New Canadian Roots releases beginning with “W”
Reviews by Doug Heselgrave
I didn’t plan it this way, but the three Canadian CDs that crossed my desk this week all feature songs by bands whose names begin with “W” Although each of them ostensibly falls under the category of roots music, they couldn’t sound more different from each other if they tried. New music from The Weakerthans, The Wilderness of Manitoba and the incredible Wintersleep continue a creative renaissance of music from Canada that hasn’t been equaled since Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young brought their sound down south in the mid sixties.
The Wilderness of Manitoba –When you left the fire
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a CD anything like The Wilderness of Manitoba’s first full length album, ‘When you left the fire.’ I’ve spent the last week listening to it constantly, and I’m still not sure what I think of it. Firstly, The Wilderness of Manitoba are not from the wintery province, but from urban Toronto, yet their name is a perfect fit for the lovely, wide open symphonic folk that decorates this often stunning release.
In some ways, ‘When you left the fire’ may just be the most beautiful sounding record of the year so far. Deep cello sounds resonate beneath shimmering layers of strings to create a sound reminiscent of Brian Wilson, Pentangle and The Incredible String Band in their heyday. The singing is never short of heavenly as Will Witwham, Scott Bouwmeester, Stefan Banjevic and Melissa Dalton soar through rich choral arrangements that often sound eerily like Simon and Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
If there is a weakness to this record, it’s that the lyrics are often hard to stomach. Perhaps I’m just a little old and crusty, but there are just a few too many images of misty castles, billowing curtains, and women wandering endlessly in the forest searching for something elusive to take the songs seriously. It’s hard to imagine even Donovan or David Crosby at his most fey being able to sing some of these lines with a straight face.
In light of this, it’s difficult to fully recommend this otherwise stellar album. From an instrumental and vocal standpoint, The Wilderness of Manitoba sound simply breathtaking, and one can only hope for their next release, they take the time to pen some lyrics that approach the same high standards as their wonderful music. Definitely worth a listen.
The Weakerthans – Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre
Winnipeg’s The Weakerthans are one of the hardest working bands in Canada. Years of touring have earned them a dedicated and growing fan base, and this first live recording from the band (recorded on home turf at Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings theatre) features many of their most popular songs selected from their five studio albums and EPs. Fan favourites like “Reconstruction Site” and “Everything must go” showcase a band at the top of their game, and based on the response, they clearly have the home town crowd eating out of their hands throughout the set.
The Weakerthans’ folky-pop with a punk attitude shtick has great appeal, but doesn’t really hold my interest after four or five tunes. Their passion for their music is obvious, but there isn’t enough variety in the songs to carry me through an 18 song live album. And, while The Weakerthans’ lyrics are whip smart and clever most of the time, the collegiate wit starts to wear thin after a while, and leaves me craving something a little more dusty, gritty and real.
Wintersleep – New Inheritors
Finally, some music by a group that’s been around the block a few times! Wintersleep’s fourth CD is by far their best release and plays to all of the band’s considerable strengths. Strong songs, great playing, daring arrangements, and impassioned singing throughout make this an indispensible album. Front man Paul Murphy goes deep into the Canadian heart of darkness – through territory marked by Neil Young, The Wheatpool and Michael Timmins on a bad day – to offer twelve moody ‘reports from the interior’ that insinuate themselves deeply into the listener’s psyche from the outset.
Haunting string arrangements and hollow aching bass lines provide the backdrop for Murphy’s increasingly brooding guitar excursions. Though his playing doesn’t sound especially like Neil Young’s, the textures and slow motion tragedies that his tone evokes are extremely reminiscent of the emotional palette the elder Canadian coaxes out of ‘old black’ when his muse is riding high. Songs like “Experience the Jewel”, “Blood Collection” and “Echolocation” take the listener on journeys through some very staggering sonic territory while at the same time offering mature, literate musings that never wear thin with repetition.
‘New Inheritors’ represents the fruition of Wintersleep’s artistic vision, and may be the album that exposes them to a wider audience. Spend some time listening; ‘New Inheritors’ is a slow burning record that reveals its character gradually. I find it hard to imagine another Canadian album coming out this year that will be anywhere near its equal.
This article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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