- October 02, 2020
- Devon Léger
- Album Reviews
by Devon Léger, Folk Alley
Another month, another glorious Bandcamp Friday! Open your pocketbooks friends and help out the artists we need in order to stay sane in this mad, mad world. For October’s Bandcamp Friday, we’re going North of the border to Canada to look at some key releases that came out in 2020. Folk Alley’s already been covering great Canadian roots music this year (Pharis & Jason Romero, Taylor Ashton), but this list dives a bit deeper. With so many Americans eyeing the border right now in case the orange fascist returns for another four years, a look at Canadian folk music right now should be especially timely. Remember to get out and VOTE this election!
If you’re a roots country fan and you haven’t been watching what’s coming out of the Canadian prairies, you’re seriously missing out. There’s some kind of magic in those wide open spaces. I first heard Colter Wall bouncing around in the back seat of a pickup truck on Saskatchewan’s arrow-straight dirt roads, and I once asked Clayton Purdom from Kacy & Clayton how big his childhood ranch was (he didn’t quote me acres, but rather the number of his cattle). Country music here is tied to the land, embedded in rural Canadian life, and imbued with the grit of a dusty country road. It’s the real deal. Richard Inman’s been quietly making great country music from Winnipeg, just turning out song after song touching on hard living and old ways. He grew up on a farm, was raised between Mormons and Mennonites in Alberta, and used to work driving forklifts and delivering siding. He’s lived the life he’s singing about (check out this great article/interview by Calgary writer Mary-Lynn Wardle to get more of his story), and some of the songs on his new album, Faded Love Better Days (esp the title track) are like a masterclass in old-school country songwriting. The kind of gut-punch, truth-telling country that Nashville seems to have forgotten about. “Dream of faded love and better days,” he sings. “Save my pennies for some better boots. I’m hard on everything, including you. My only friend is a good night’s rest.”
Acadian singer-songwriter P’tit Belliveau is part of a strange cultural renaissance in Nova Scotia based around the obscure French dialect chiac. A working class language structure, chiac blends French and English fluently, mixing in strange slang and old maritime terms. The dialect is spread throughout Southern New Brunswick (“chiac” is a contraction of the name of the town Shédiac in New Brunswick) and over into Nova Scotia’s Acadian regions, and ever since madcap hip-hop group Radio Radio pushed it into Canada’s mainstream, it’s been the lingua fraca of a whole generation of boundary pushing Acadian artists in Canada. Belliveau’s music roots itself in folk and country, happy little banjos strumming throughout, but, like most of today’s chiac music, also brings in electronic touches. If you understand any French his songs are hilariously deadpan, comic relief akin to Trailer Park Boys with maybe less profanity. For his song “Income Tax,” he dreams about what he’s going to do when his tax return comes in. Among his dreams: “J'vais blower friggin’ 200 piastres à Wal-Mart (“I’ll blow friggin’ 200 bucks at Wal-Mart”), “J’vais blower friggin’ 40 piastres au Taco Bell” (“I’ll blow friggin’ 40 bucks at Taco Bell”), or “J’vais remplir ma car de friggin’ supreme gas” (“I’ll fill up my car with friggin’ supreme gas”). Belliveau’s part of a whole scene that’s just full of crazy videos and songs about the weirdest details of life in Canada’s Maritime provinces. Check out also the lowfi rap of Arthur Comeau (of Radio Radio) and the heavy drawl country singing of Acadian/Métis songwriter Mike à Vik.
The Aerialists jump out of the Celtic and Scandinavian trad scenes, anchored by Elise Boeur’s fiddle, Màiri Chaimbeul’s harp, and Adam Iredale-Gray’s guitar, but they push these roots in the most fascinating directions. They’re technically brilliant musicians, but their arrangements are next level on the Canadian trad scene. With drums and electric bass they push cross-rhythms into traditional tunes, and crack the structure of the music open like a lobster claw to get at the meat inside. The group comes in part from the ashes of another favorite Canadian group of mine, Fish & Bird, and I was happy to see bandmate Taylor Ashton, easily one of my favorite songwriters (who also has a killer solo album out this year on Signature Sounds) joining up with them on standout track “Lesson in the Losing.” There are a lot of bands messing around with Celtic music in Canada today, but very few of them have the technical chops and the aesthetic brilliance to pull off an album like this.
It used to be exceptionally difficult to find Inuit music. I once mailed a twenty dollar bill to an Inuit heavy metal band begging them to send me an album of Inuit accordion music. I never got anything back, but considered that my small contribution to the music scene up North in Canada. Now with so much of the world’s music available digitally, it’s thankfully become a bit easier to track down new Inuit music, and especially now that Nunavut has their first record label: Aakuluk Music. The new label is run by an enterprising band of Inuit roots musicians, The Jerry Cans, who’ve been fan favorites recently at Folk Alliance International conferences. They’ve got a new album out too, Echoes, and it’s a bit of a departure from their rootsier sound. The album is anthemic, morphing into rock in a very Canadian way. With electrified fiddle and arena-level harmonies, they’re pushing their songwriting to new heights while still remaining deeply grounded in their community. The unique and remarkable sound of Inuit throat singing, or kattajaq, runs throughout the album, and the band moves fluidly between songs in English and Inuktitut. The remarkably powerful song “Swell (My Brother)” was influenced by the lead singer’s loss of two friends from suicide, a tragic epidemic among Inuit populations. Inuit music today encompasses everything from heavy metal and hip-hop to country and especially the accordion, of which the Inuit have some amazing traditions. The Jerry Cans respect all the different threads of Inuit roots music, even bringing on Avery Keenainak who’s the granddaughter of the great Nunavut accordionist Simeonie Keenainak as a new bandmember. With their music, and with their record label, they’re committed to getting Inuit music out to the rest of the world.
I absolutely love Montréal. To me, it’s one of the most vibrant Canadian cities, alongside Toronto, and more than that, it represents the dream of the global francophonie. As a francophone myself, I’m so excited to be in a North American city that runs on French and brings together immigrant populations from Algeria to Vietnam around a common language. But Montréal is also famously hard to live in as an anglophone and there’s much conflict with Montréal’s rich historic Jewish communities. I’ve been heartened recently by the work of Jewish artists like Jason Rosenblatt of Shtreiml and Socalled, who’ve both made powerful inroads to Montréal’s French-Canadian trad scene. Rosenblatt especially is a shining light of Montréal’s Jewish music community, a renowned harmonica player, and a few years back he was a great tour guide, taking me all over the city for a tour of its history. I was excited to see that Jason’s band Shtreiml have a new album out, Har Meron, based on Mizrahi Jewish liturgical music. The music is stately, powerful, not the go-speedracer-go freneticism of klezmer music, but tapping into something more ancient. The instrumentation seems somewhat unusual, harmonica pairing with saxophone, mixed up with trombone, but these are master musicians, so it all melds easily. This all instrumental album brings new life to music with deep Canadian roots.
Newfoundland traditional singer Matthew Byrne comes from deep in the tradition. His songs have been passed down in his family, some of whom are noted traditional singers as well. He’s got a marvelous voice, as clear as a cold stream, and he’s a captivating performer. I first heard him through his work with Newfoundland supergroup The Dardanelles, but his solo albums are all on Bandcamp now and well worth searching out. He’s also just released a new album of him in concert with the Lady Cove Women’s Choir of St. John’s, Newfoundland. The album’s taken from a live recording from 2017, and as a special treat, the vocals and string arrangements are done by an excellent Newfoundland musician and fiddle Duane Andrews (his duo album with Cape Breton fiddler Dwayne Côté is an absolute blast). The songs are old, referencing Napoleon, or Saxon hoards, or lost loves from the Victorian era, and some of the most powerful moments on the album are the unaccompanied ballads from Byrne. But though they’re old, it doesn’t mean they don’t have current meanings. One of the best parts of the album are Byrne’s discussions between songs on stage, and for the song “Come Fare Away,” he talks about emigration from America to Canada during the Vietnam War and ties this to larger themes of leaving home. It’s a powerful moment, especially now with so many Americans eyeing their Northern border and thinking of leaving.
Prince Edward Island songwriter Shane Pendergast strikes me as a songwriter in the vein of Canadian legend Stan Rogers. His songs are drenched in the salt of the Maritimes, seemingly straightforward ballads that would fit perfectly with a late night kitchen party. There’s a nostalgia to his music, but in a year when the idea of the past is as terrifying as the future, as crowds tear down historical monuments of hate, I’m happy to say that it’s a gentle kind of nostalgia. It’s a nostalgia that’s more of a dream, a wish that we could go back again, could go back to something better. But you can’t go back, and Pendergast knows this. “You can’t put a place to the name,” he sings, bringing up sun-dappled images of the Canadian countryside and knowing that maybe those perfect places only exist in his head. If Pendergast sounds like someone intimately comfortable with the language of folk music, that may be because his family goes back through three generations at least of folk singers tied to Prince Edward Island, all the way back to his great-grandfather Big Jim Pendergast. My colleague Steacy Eaton has written a beautiful meditation on Pendergast’s album that ends with the phrase “it reminds me that a kind of regionalism is thought to be a universalism in Canadian instinct.” Pendergast is a master at defining and re-defining a Maritime folk song, but like other Canadian folk musicians, he’s using his rich regional roots to define a kind of universal Canadian-ness. But whether you’re Canadian or not, when Pendergast sings about “a gale so strong and boundless it took me to the past,” you’ll wish for such a wind as well.
Here’s a few more excellent Canadian roots musicians putting out music in 2020:
Montréal duo Veranda meld French language bluegrass and country in delightful ways. It may seem unusual to American audiences, but both traditions have a rich life in francophone Canada.
Toronto-based guitarist Mike Kerr might be the nicest guy on the Canadian folk scene, and that’s saying something. He’s always ready with a kind word, or a suggestion to listen to a new album he loves. His new album is an album of guitar instrumentals as delightful as Mike himself. It’s sly, funny, and just a blast to listen to.
Vancouver’s Paul Silveria is well known and loved in the old-time stringband scene, a noted caller as well as banjo player and community leader. His new album brings together traditional songs with originals, a tricky balancing act he pulls off while tapping into some interesting social justice ideas.
Noted banjo player and composer Jayme Stone pushes from folk to electronic beats on his new album AWake, a moving meditation on grief and humanity.
Pharis Romero’s sister, Marin Patenaude certainly makes the case that she comes from a powerfully musical family. Her new album melds the rural landscape of Horsefly, British Columbia with the seashore skyscrapers of Vancouver with remarkable ease.
Mike Kerr recommended this album and it’s a doozy. With just his guitar, Martin weaves from Dylan-esque folk to 50s rockabilly and over to old traditional ballads. I’ve got no clue who he is, but what a great album!
Toronto singer-songwriter Jerry Leger (no relation that I know of!) made this album during COVID isolation as a bit of a surprise, but it’s a starkly gripping look at a great songwriter in isolation.
It’s just a tiny three song EP, but this certainly sparks an interest for hopefully a full length album from this young P.E.I. quartet. Featuring the relatively rare combo of concertina and fiddle, the band's tunes are delightful. More please!