Music from the Other Canada
Not from Montreal – Voices from under the Radar
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
The embarrassment of musical riches just keeps pouring out of Montreal, and while this has been a great thing for Canadian music in general, a lot of other singers from outside of central Canada are being all but ignored. This is certainly a shame – especially when one considers the flood of roots based artists from all over the country who are hitting the road and booking studio time. Not since the nineteen sixties heyday that introduced the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ian and Sylvia, and Leonard Cohen to the outside world has Canadian song craft experienced the kind of renaissance it’s enjoying today. These two CDs came to my attention recently, and while Gordie Tentrees and John Wort Hannam may not set the world on fire any time soon, both artists have recorded solid albums that are worth a listen.
Gordie Tentrees – Mercy or Sin
Gordie Tentrees comes out of the fertile Yukon music scene, and it’s easy to hear how the influence of the land and wide-open spaces has crept into his simple and unaffected acoustic ballads. Tentrees has a warm and engaging voice that sounds best in an unadorned setting, supported simply by his own guitar. Though none of the songs are particularly original, Tentrees’ delivery is so relaxed and unpretentious that it’s impossible not to get drawn into the world he describes. As the title of the album suggests, the songs on Mercy and Sin cover some hurting territory as Tentree journeys through landscapes of disappointment, pain and redemption. On the best songs like ‘Alfred’, ‘Rambling’s gonna be the death of me’, and ‘Ross River’, the album’s poignant finale, Tentrees’ husky delivery evokes a life of hard traveling and lessons bitterly learned. Listeners will hear the influence of John Prine in the lilt and cadence of songs like ‘Daylight’ and the title track – which features a duet with Jennie Sosnowski – would not sound out of place on Prine’s wonderful ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ album.
The only shortcoming on an otherwise admirable collection of songs is that when Tentrees and his band opt to play in an electric style, things go wrong. While it is possible to imagine that the inclusion of this kind of song might pick up the energy and provide a little variety in a live set at a Whitehorse bar on a Saturday night, the electric numbers tend to sound a little generic and lack the charm of the acoustic cuts. Ultimately, this complaint speaks more about my own taste in music, and shouldn’t be enough to scare people away from Tentrees’ rough hewn and truthful songs from Canada’s far north.
John Wort Hannam – Queen’s Hotel
John Wort Hannam is a relative newcomer to music. He spent years teaching English on the country’s largest native reserve deep in the Blackfoot confederacy until a fateful encounter with a Loudon Wainwright III record inspired him to buy a guitar and learn a few chords. Ten years later, ‘Queen’s Hotel’ is Hannam’s third album and the second one produced by Steve Dawson, the hardest working man in Canadian roots music.
Queen’s Hotel is an instantly likeable collection of songs that is blessed with a wide open, recorded off the floor feel, and like all of Dawson’s productions there are many instrumental highlights and breath taking musical moments.
In particular, the interplay between Hannam’s voice – tempered by his clear ringing guitar – and the rest of the band is delightful to listen to from beginning to end.
Like Gordie Tentrees, Hannam writes about what he knows and through the course of eleven songs, listeners are treated to his heartfelt ruminations on life, work and love in the twenty first century. While Hannam may lack some of the lyrical depth of – say – Bruce Cockburn or The Deep Dark Woods, there is something very likeable about the persona he presents in his songs. To that end, Queen’s Hotel is surprisingly successful and there’s not really a dud or clunker track on the record. In fact, it would be safe to say that the opening track ‘With the Grain’ is a near perfect song. Light and breezy, yet imbued with an undercurrent of yearning, it embodies all that is good about Canadian roots music. I can’t stop listening to it.
Queen’s Hotel may turn out to be the sleeper album of the fall of 2009. It is a relaxed and endearing affair that will grow on you with repeated listenings. Definitely worth checking out.
this article also appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com