Wood Wires & Whiskey: Year in Review 2009
Published Nov 22, 20091. Great Lake Swimmers
2. Neko Case
3. Deep Dark Woods
4. Timber Timbre
5. Dan Mangan
6. Son Volt
7. The Wooden Sky
8. Carolyn Mark/NQ Arbuckle
9. The Warped 45s
10. Amelia Curran
1. Great Lake Swimmers Lost Channels (Nettwerk)
Since 2001, Toronto's Great Lake Swimmers have been steadily producing some of the most emotionally affecting and quietly radiant indie folk of the decade. On their fourth album, the band burst from their hushed cocoon and blossomed into a more polished and sonically upbeat version. With Lost Channels, they hit a dynamic high note without compromising their typically unflinching exploration of the shadowy edges of the human psyche. Partially recorded in remote corners of the Thousand Islands region of Ontario, the album exudes an air of searching and alienation consistent with the Swimmers' earlier work. This time, however, Tony Dekker's serene voice hovers coolly over richer, more varied arrangements than have previously been seen from the brooding folksters.
Dekker, the band's diffident ringleader, believes the greater range of tempos and moods on Channels is due in part to a loosening of his creative reins. "On earlier records I had a clear vision of what I thought things should sound like and was very adamant about trying to match the outcome to what I heard in my head," he says. "With this one I gave up more of that creative control and allowed everyone to add their own unique creative touches."
The result is a brighter tone and a wider assortment of textures to augment Dekker's soul-searching lyrics. "Everyone understood that we were doing something a little bit different with Great Lake Swimmers songs," says Dekker. "But at the same time they were very mindful about the universe of the songs."
From the sweeping, melancholy splendour of the album's opening notes to the banjo-brushed heartache of the Carter Family cover that closes it, the Swimmers' universe is fraught with murky depths and perilous rapids. It's a course they've always navigated with quiet confidence. This time around they seem to have perfected their stroke.
2. Neko Case Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
Expanding on the genre-bulging genius of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Ms. Case's Middle Cyclone levels most conventions expected of a country artist. A beautiful rumination on the conflicts between humanity and its host environment, Cyclone is also a master class in songwriting. Neko's stunning voice and clever lyrics are still the album's centrepiece, but atypical song structures, time signature manipulations, subtle psychedelic production experiments and fantastic instrumental interplay raise this effort into a class of its own. Middle Cyclone is a game-changing album that transcends all musical boundaries, standing proudly as one of the best records not only of the year, but also of the past decade.
Scott A. Gray
3. Deep Dark Woods Winter Hours (Black Hen)
Anyone calling this third album from Saskatoon's Deep Dark Woods sombre has completely missed the point. Singer/guitarist Ryan Boldt's tales of lost love, life and money are delivered with such weighty tones that "How Can I Try" and "Two Time Loser" merely sound like the consequences of an adventurous life. As most musicians are writing songs about the pain of turning 25, the Deep Dark Woods are more concerned about finding themselves 25,000 miles from home. Winter Hours showcases a band much too focused to look back in anger.
4. Timber Timbre (Out of This Spark)
Taylor Kirk comes on more Gene Vincent than Muddy Waters, but his work as Timber Timbre is haunted, harrowing blues where terror lurks in tension behind a smooth veneer. One is never sure if Kirk is the velvet voice of a seductive devil himself, or an honest man surrounded by spirits and faced with dire circumstance. With subtle shadings from violins, organs, plinking pianos and gospel choirs, Kirk takes you on a sparse, spooky and seductive late night drive to destinations unknown. Even the joyous, major-key moments are more like a weepy sigh of relief after the first sign of sunlight ends a lonely night of the soul.
5. Dan Mangan Nice, Nice, Very Nice (File Under: Music)
The songs that make up Vancouverite Dan Mangan's second LP Nice, Nice, Very Nice simply feel huge. The secret is Mangan's impassioned enthusiasm, as songs like "Road Regrets" nearly persuade you to drive across country, make new friends and dance madly on foreign beaches. Despite Mangan's best attempts to sound mysterious, Nice, Nice, Very Nice is a simple album; you comprehend precisely what songs like "Fair Verona" are about even if you've never uttered a word of English in your life.
6. Son Volt American Central Dust (Rounder)
Trumpeted as a return to the straightforward sound of the band's earlier output, this album instead showed that Jay Farrar's mindset is clearly focused on the present. Although several tracks address the lingering failures of the Bush administration ― the economic collapse, Hurricane Katrina ― Farrar still gets across a sense of that things are indeed improving. It was rather unfortunate that his old partner Jeff Tweedy released a new Wilco album at almost precisely the same time, but comparisons between the two no longer hold water.
7. The Wooden Sky If I Don't Come Home You'll Know I'm Gone (Black Box)
Fuelled by an incredible cast that includes producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire) and Chris Stringer (Ohbijou), Toronto's the Wooden Sky have churned up a seamless collage that flows naturally from country-tinged folk hymns to lively indie rock praises that'll have you carolling along. Front-man Gavin Gardiner's textured vocal timber lies somewhere between a cello and an upright bass as he slides effortlessly from a taunt strain to a relaxed baritone. The end result of all this greatness is a record where every song stands on its own merit, beckoning you to make it your favourite.
8. Carolyn Mark/NQ Arbuckle Let's Just Stay Here (Mint)
Here's a musical marriage consummated in honky-tonk heaven. Matching up two of our best barroom bards was an inspired move; their voices blend well and the writing and musicianship is top-notch. Mark contributes the most new songs, but it's NQ's "Officer Down" (arguably his best yet) that provides the clear highlight of a disc devoid of lowlights. Covers of Jr. Gone Wild and Justin Rutledge add variety while confirming the impeccable taste of this dynamite duo. More please!
9. The Warped 45s 10 Day Poem For Saskatchewan (Pheromone)
From the opening sweep of the title track, this Toronto band's full-length debut immediately conjured up the rustic charms of great Canadian bands such as the Rheostatics and the Skydiggers. Led by cousins Ryan and Dave McEathron, each displays his own distinctive voice on material that reflects everything from gritty realism to poetic flights of fancy. The album is virtually bursting at the seams with passion and eloquence, leaving little doubt that the Warped 45s have a fruitful career ahead.
10. Amelia Curran Hunter, Hunter (Six Shooter)
Hunter, Hunter lays a pebble path at your feet, takes your hand and leads you into the often unforgiving forest of life. For singer-songwriter Amelia Curran ― a Haligonian by way of St. John's, Newfoundland ― each lyric is a stroke on a canvas where the bigger picture isn't the aim. Curran prefers to admire individual colours and emotions that make us human. Turbulent, meditative tunes like "The Mistress," "All Me" and "Bye Bye Montreal" thrash about in your soul and stir up your past. In the end, they leave you smiling at the power of a lone voice, a single guitar and an open heart.