Review: David Baxter, Day & Age and Patina
Scanning through the list of tracks on David Baxter’s 2009 disc, Day & Age, suggests that he was maybe not feeling so good about his love life at the time: “Maybe We’d Be Lovers”, “Do You Think of Me?”, “If That’s What You Want”, “Winter Came Early”, “How Could I Know?” So I steeled myself for a depressing hour of tales of unrequited love and dashed hopes.
It’s not so bad though. The lyrics that ruminate on lost possibilities are balanced out by cheerful melodies and sparse, delicate arrangements, as on “Maybe We’d Be Lovers”. The song reminded me of the guys I love best out in Alberta: Tom Phillips, who often has an accordion droning underneath the band, or Ian Tyson, whose sweet melodic turns on acoustic guitar and mandolin somehow always evoke the prairies for me.
The Tyson connection underlies several songs, not just in the Spanish-inflected guitar riffs that ground each one, but in the well placed harmonica whines and pedal steel flourishes too. Baxter sets his stories against the barren emotional backdrop that appears upon a relationship’s demise and this is mirrored in his minimalist arrangements, as in “I Had to Believe My Eyes” and “If That’s What You Want”. Things pick up a little for “Thank You Girl”, a peppy country dance, and settle back down for “Winter Came Early”.
Baxter is grounded in the kind of acoustic country that characterizes what is now called “western” music, often heard among the rural folk artists living in parts of the prairies, but his songwriting is equally rooted in the folk tradition, going between personal tales of heartbreak and lyrics with a broader message. The environment and weather are central components of his tunes, something that has distinguished Canadian songwriters of the past, and is a welcome return to those familiar with that repertoire.
He’s also joined by a star-studded backing band, many of whom he has produced prior to releasing his own work. Jenn Grant, Ron Sexsmith, Catherine MacLellan, and Treasa Levasseur all appear to sing alongside Baxter. The duet with MacLellan on “How Could I Know” is made particularly poignant by their lovely harmonies, and Grant’s voice winds ethereal turns around his melody in “Meet Me in the Willow Grove”. Other roots stars like Justin Rutledge, Burke Carroll, and Old Man Luedecke appear to lock down the harmonica, pedal steel, and banjo parts respectively.
Baxter was obviously feeling better (and from what I hear, newly in love) when he recorded Patina in 2011. That change of mood is evident in the first track, “Time Won’t Wait”, governed by optimistic lyrics, a fuller texture, bouncing rhythms, and his somehow lighter voice. The same cast appears, with the addition of Del Barber on harmonica, Jadea Kelly and Josh Cockerill on backing vocals, and Miranda Mulholland on fiddle, among others. There’s a more even distribution of lighthearted tunes among the sombre ones, and while I enjoy the shift in overall mood, I think I appreciate the aesthetic and effort behind the simpler arrangements on Day & Age more.
Not to say there aren’t some great tunes on Patina. “She’s Drinkin’ Again” is a fun rockabilly tinged number that works for the Christmas season (my guy might have to put that one on tonight, sorry honey), and “Magdalena” moves into rock territory with thick textures and a driving organ part. “Rockin’ in the Cradle of the South” has a kind of zydeco feel (to be expected I guess), and “Only a Dream”, a promising love song a la Dwight Yoakam at the start, has a little unexpected twist. I was especially looking forward to “Bow River Blues”, hoping it was a call out to my hometown, and its opening groove and mandolin licks did indeed evoke the icy droplets that hover over the water in Calgary winters.
Baxter is playing in the final instalment of the “Lonesome Heroes” series, taking place every Tuesday at Lula Lounge in Toronto. This has been a great series – and I haven’t gotten to see any of it! – featuring some of the most promising emerging roots acts in the area. Tomorrow’s show includes Kendel Carson and Sam Cash, and next week’s has Ariana Gillis (who does quite an amazing live show), Julie Fader, and Whitney Rose alongside Baxter. Go if you’re in the area, not only is Lula a great spot, it’s only $10.