Review: The Breakmen – Heartwood
Last week I strongly suggested that students in my Pop Music and Music in the City classes go see the classic bluegrass of Crazy Strings at the Silver Dollar Room in Toronto. I went down to meet them, dragging a colleague along with me. We stayed for a set and as we left, he commented on the relentlessness of bluegrass. True—you really have to be in the mood to enjoy its breakneck speed and nasal timbres, even when you are listening to the best players in the city (or country) as we were that night, although if anyone can get you in the mood for bluegrass, it is the members of Crazy Strings.
As such, it’s always intriguing to find a group who deviates from the entrenched stylistic traditions of bluegrass without diminishing the importance of those traditions. With a solid background in bluegrass techniques, The Breakmen are great at simultaneously incorporating the influences of their contemporaries in the Canadian roots scene. Their album, Heartwood, is the Vancouver group’s third and it shows their diversity, moving through contemporary mainstream country, bluegrass, rootsy folk, and pop. The combination of Matthew Lawson on bass, multi-instrumentalist Ben Rogalsky, Lee Watson on guitar, mandolin, and most of the songwriting duties, and Archie Pateman on guitar and banjo is pure country chemistry.
The rollicking joy of “Going Back East” is tempered by the melancholy of the next track, “Show Me an Angel.” The first few songs on the album also demonstrate their versatility as a vocal quartet: the close harmonies on “Angel” are a great contrast to the gap between a soaring tenor and more understated baritone on “Gone” that could easily land them a spot on CMT’s rotation against other contemporary acts.
“Katy” produces a sweet nostalgia in the lyrics, but is balanced by bluesy harmonica and rolling banjo. At other times, the band evokes current country rock by using the Hammond organ and pedal steel combo that defines many roots bands’ sounds.
Vocal harmonies and the delicate melodic flourishes of bluegrass on banjo and mandolin appear on tracks like “1000 Miles,” where the fiddle also dances with the pedal steel in the background. The high lonesome sound so coveted in the genre is successfully achieved by the singers as they reach into the upper reaches of their registers. It’s no wonder this album sits so well in the modernized bluegrass landscape; aside from their own solid training and technique in the genre, they have the assistance of Crazy Strings members John Showman on fiddle and Andrew Collins taking engineering credits.
The album finishes on a more sombre note, featuring sparse instrumentation against rich lyrics: “You can’t just love a little/There’s no telling when it will end/Some hearts break a thousand times/Some hearts never mend.” Maybe an unexpected conclusion for an album that is otherwise spirited and fun, but “From Here” adds another dimension to The Breakmen’s artistry.
The Breakman are continuing their Ontario/Quebec tour tomorrow with a show at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. Info for their other shows can be found here.