Northern Songs – great new music from the Maritimes – Steve Gates and Rose Cousins
Reviews by Douglas Heselgrave
Thanks to the incredible renaissance that’s been taking place in Montreal for the last few years, Canadian musicians are receiving more attention than they have any time since the late sixties when Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and a whole host of other young musicians drove south of the border in hopes of hitting the bit time. Still, it would be a huge mistake to think that the only place music is ‘happening’ in Canada was in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
There’s a huge groundswell of very fine musicians coming out of the Maritime Provinces these days. With artists like Old Man Luedeke, Catherine McLelland, Joel Plaskett and Wintersleep making music, the Halifax, Nova Scotia scene has never been healthier. New albums from Steve Gates and Rose Cousins are just the tip of the iceberg from this very dynamic community.
A Bee In Her Mouth – Steve Gates
‘A Bee in Her Mouth’ comes hot on the tail of ‘Hello Jesus!,’ an EP that Steve Gates released late last year as a warm up for this album. As good as aspects of that effort were – especially the wonderful take on ‘Always on My Mind’ as a heart-felt duet between Gates and Prince Edward Island singer and songwriter, Catherine MacLellan – the songs on ‘Hello Jesus’ often felt tentative and under-developed. That’s certainly not the case with ‘A Bee In Her Mouth’, for it’s easy to hear how all of the woodshedding and experimenting with approaches to presenting a song have paid off and resulted in one of the finest acoustic based albums I’ve heard this year.
Steve Gates has long been a part of the critically acclaimed Canadian group, ‘Caledonia’ but after many years of criss-crossing the country and playing every club and dive from Charlottetown to Victoria, he must have thought it was time to take a break and try something a little different. After hearing a lecture by Daniel Lanois where he encouraged musicians to take risks and be reckless in the studio, Gates decided to record ‘A Bee In Her Mouth’ in his kitchen with a group of friends he brought along for support to create this loose and heartfelt acoustic gem.
Gates’ songs are full of a hurting kind of regret that swoops between world-weariness and an almost naïve sense of excitement. The opening cut, ‘Proud Convey It’ sounds like a vintage Bert Jansch outtake with its engaging guitar driven melody and plaintive vocals while the title track and ‘Down to the River’ evoke the great Canadian folk singer, Stan Rogers channeled through a Tim Buckleyesque dramatic filter. As great as all of the songs on this record are, special mention must be made of ‘Godforsaken’, a biting song about how the promise of the ‘new world’ that North America embodies has been squandered. It is a powerful and dark track that pulls no punches and is, by itself, more than reason enough to check ‘A Bee In Her Mouth’ out. Add to that, warm and subtle back up vocals and instrumentation from Halifax stalwarts such as Jen Grant and Rose Cousins, and Steve Gates has got a winner on his hands. ‘A Bee In Her Ear’ is a very worthwhile album that will continue to grow on listeners the more often they hear it.
We Have Made a Spark – Rose Cousins
Rose Cousins is another artist from Halifax who enjoys a reputation in Canadian roots music circles, but who has yet to make much of a splash outside of the country. Up until now, she’s spent a lot of time supporting other artists such as the Juno winning performer, Joel Plaskett in his touring band or working in a group setting with Jill Barber and Meaghan Smith on a Christmas album, ‘A New Kind of Light’, to devote much time to her own career. As a result her own solo work has not received the attention that her talent merits. Hopefully, that’s about to change with her third album, ‘We Have Made a Spark.’
Like Lucinda Williams and Mary Gauthier, Rose Cousins writes and performs songs that fit loosely into the country music genre but are not bound or hemmed in by its clichés. Her lyrics are close to the bone, reflecting a sense of loss, regret and forbearance without ever wallowing in the temptations and torpor of sentimentality that sink so many similar efforts. A single listen to the opening song ‘The Darkness’ with its deep and confident vocals riding over thumping banjo and bass lines should be enough for listeners to know that Rose Cousins has something special going on. With ‘We Have Made a Spark’, Rose Cousins proves she has one of the strongest and most emotive new voices on the country scene that when combined with the challenging, raw and uncompromising subject matter her songs reflect, are responsible for one of the most engaging albums of the year so far. Full of pain and hope, ‘We Have Made a Spark’ is an unexpectedly stunning album that begs to be heard.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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