The Year in Music: 2020
Our annual review of new recordings by local musicians.
“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” I remember the first time I read these words by novelist Virginia Woolf.
At the time I was in crisis, surrounded by challenges. So I began arranging everything I could control and that was within immediate reach. Suddenly I felt better. Circumstances improved.
This Covid year has been calamitous for many, but at the same time, I’m astounded by the strength of the human spirit. Heroes and quiet leaders are taking action, focusing on the good, arranging what can be controlled and creating plans to move forward.
In the music community, activity continues and there is much to celebrate. Artists refuse to be constrained by crisis, despite having their proverbial feet kicked out from under them. Creators will not be denied. They just arrange.
Local musicians have shown their mettle by collaborating creatively at a distance to bring live, extraordinary music to audiences. In a typical year, for example, Ryan Hancock leads the Campfire Poets in countless stage performances. This year he has gathered musicians virtually to create and post their collaborations on YouTube.
Each musician involved records a video of a particular song and sends the digital files to Hancock, who edits and assembles the contributions into a polished musical whole. The project provides a triumphant outlet for performers whose live performances have been curtailed. Check out the Big Canadian Musical Collaboration on the Campfire Poets’ Facebook page.
Music teachers, too, are finding ways to reach students from a safe distance, and original music, created and recorded using newly accessible technologies, is becoming common.
Sara Rose of Hockley created two beautiful videos in 2020. “Ashton’s Song” celebrates the life of a dear friend, and “Old Fashioned Summer Night” focuses on the joys of summer gatherings. Indie folk and soul artist Erin Bolton is also diligently writing music for an album targeted for release next year. It will be brimming with songs developed while she grappled with her own intense song-writing challenges during quarantine.
Inspiration is everywhere for those who are looking, and this year “Something to Talk About,” written by multitalented Mono singer-songwriter Shirley Eikhard, was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Recorded by Bonnie Raitt, the hit song propelled the blues artist to a 1992 Grammy Award for best female pop vocal performance.
During this debilitating year, another Canadian musician, perhaps one of our local artists, may have created something that will also become a legendary masterwork. With this in mind, I invite you to listen to, enjoy and support all the music presented here. You may just find a future award winner to talk about.
Untangling belief systems and making sense of challenging loss inspired the music on Faith, Sara May’s new album, released under the Falcon Jane moniker.
Produced nearly entirely in May’s home, the recording was created in collaboration with Andrew McArthur and features the mixing and sonic enhancements of Evan Gordon of The Magic. The result is an invitation to eavesdrop on songs May originally intended to be “from me to me.”
This album feels more considered and reflective than Feelin’ Freaky, its predecessor. On Faith, convictions about love, life and the stories we are all fed throughout our collective pasts are up for contemplation. “The Other Moon,” dedicated to May’s nonna, and the heavenly harmony of its final chorus, as well as the edgier “Take Your Turn” are standouts.
The November release of Faith may have granted May something tangible to hold after working through her losses. Faith may do just that for the rest of us as well.
Faith is available digitally and on black vinyl, as well as on limited-edition cassette and sunset gold vinyl.
Let It Rest, Let It Rise
I’ve watched Nathan Smith work musical magic for a live audience with his fiddle, an acoustic guitar, a dash of charm and the smoothest voice ever. Now, with the release of Let It Rest, Let It Rise, that enchantment is finally captured to be enjoyed at leisure.
Smith, who plays locally with the Campfire Poets, blends evocative original lyrics and melodies to create an alchemic combination of bluegrass, Celtic, Appalachian old-time, traditional Québécois and French balfolk. Every track on Let It Rest, Let It Rise is performed to perfection with “Citygrass Jamboree,” “Dinosaurs” and “Cold Water” standing out.
Don’t miss hearing and enjoying Smith’s superlative collaboration with Emilyn Stam (piano, accordion, fiddle, harmony vocals), Alan Mackie (upright bass, harmony vocals), Anh Phung (flute, mandolin, harmony vocals), Hannah Naiman (clawhammer banjo, harmony vocals) and Don Kerr (harmony vocals and production).
Devin and the Dark Light
Devin Hentsch had my attention the moment I heard the riff from “Amaranth Mammoth” on Devin and the Dark Light’s 2013 release, Fake Spring. Since then I’ve continued to watch this artist evolve. His band’s latest album, Brideland, may be some of his most beguiling work yet.
With an up-tempo rhythm created by guest drummer Cory Bruyea, the opening track, “Cellphone Light,” hums along like a finely tuned Benz. Justin McDonald deftly provides the guitar and harmonica handiwork, and Hentsch’s vocal performance is the strongest I’ve heard from this artist.
“Broken Heart,” a yearning ballad that’s presented in a style reminiscent of the 1950s, reflects on loss and the struggle of others to support a loved one disabled by grief. This is a very personal song for Hentsch, and Sara May has produced a powerful partner video that aptly conveys the emotion involved.
Brideland concludes with the exquisite “Throwin’ Candy.” The track’s dreamy vocals, which dance with an inventive drum and bass loop provided by bassist Andrew Steele, may just steal the show.
I’ll Be the Meteor
Award-winning singer-songwriter Sohayla Smith and her husband, musician Adrian Smith, still believe in the art of the album and that music lovers want to embrace a tangible collection of music. Their latest recording, I’ll Be the Meteor, makes a compelling case for this belief.
A musical therapist, teacher and performer based in Shelburne, Smith has a passion for music that is palpable and steadfast. This passion permeates every one of the 10 original songs on I’ll Be the Meteor as each track reveals her feelings about relationships.
The barn-burning opening anthem, “Burn It to the Ground,” starts a musical junket that guides listeners through Smith’s reflections on a joyous relationship in “Kettle Corn Kisses” and “The Man You Are” to a triumphant tribute to the power of new love in healing the lingering hurt of losing an old one in “Erase You.”
Smith doesn’t object to a little grit in her music, and bolstered by the clarity of her voice the music on I’ll Be the Meteor is a definitive win for the idea of an album as a concept.
The Weather Station
After three years The Weather Station is back with new music. Tamara Lindeman, who fuels this project, has released Robber, a new EP that is complex, conflicted, and layered with tension and concern.
Although the sound of Robber is fresh, clean and driven by an engaging rhythm, Lindeman’s lyrics question current ideologies, mistaken ideas of love and what “robbers” might be up to.
Robber bears repeated listening, and the accompanying video finds Lindeman behind the camera as well as in front of it as she conveys the complicated idea behind this song. The video’s many characters reflect various backstories as they interact with Lindeman in a shadowy forest setting.
Robber is available for download on all the usual platforms, as well as on seven-inch vinyl, with a B side available only on the vinyl version.
Robber is here. It’s epic.
I’ve always known that Erick Bruck is brilliant behind a drum kit, but in addition to his live performances, he has in recent years been quietly honing his engineering and musical production skills to the benefit of artists like Erin Bolton and Fountain Bell.
With Starting Mercy, Bruck steps into the solo spotlight himself, presenting listeners with a collection of eight original synth-pop tracks immersed in groove. The collection reveals the full scope of Bruck’s talents, from vocal flair and drumming prowess to sonic sculpting. Each song is built on a foundation of deep and muscular rhythms bathed in layered vocals that reflect a satisfying essence of Merseyside.
From the opening track, “All the Same to Me,” to “Sad Eyes” (a personal favourite) to “Wave,” the final song, the uplifting vibe is infectious – to the point where I cranked up the sound in my car to the full-tilt setting with joyous results.
Creators of original music use various cyber venues to share their talents and music in the current marketplace. And so it is with Wally Jericho, who in recent years has abandoned making music for sale in favour of posting his musical musings on his YouTube channel as a gift to everyone.
Jericho’s 2020 offerings include “Trois vignettes bleues,” “May I” and “Dark Room,” as well as moody collaborations with Indian actor Aditi Sharma. All revolve around piano, synths, saxophone, trumpet and drums paired with video images. The offerings are pleasingly ethereal, eminently relaxing and well worth investigating.
Wally Jericho has provided musical support to many Orangeville-area musicians, including the legendary Houseplants. He is also an iPhoneography addict who shares his work on Instagram.
I’m hoping for more content from this artist in the future and thank him for sharing his gifts at a time when we can all use more creations with an affirmative message.
So many things in life have a sweet spot. My titanium golf driver has one, and of course, there’s a sweet spot on Rafael Nadal’s tennis racket. This spot is not always apparent until you land on it – and then you know.
So it is with Graham Maycock’s latest release, Translucent Dream. He has definitely found the magic spot.
After following this artist since before his 2016 album Gray, I can say that Translucent Dream brings his music to a perfect landing. This latest album has a more relaxed, less keyboard-centric sound, with vocal work that is more judiciously presented but still exquisitely smooth and soaring.
All the tracks have an R&B and soul essence, as well as some sublime guitar work that ups the cool factor.
“Bittersweet” is assembled to perfection, while “Can’t Stop Time” grooves along deliciously. “Resurrection” has the funkiest guitar-and-keyboard interplay merged with a strapping drum back beat and those quintessential Maycock vocals.
Translucent Dream hit the sweet spot. And it knocked me out!
Russell Allen Scott
The first time I heard Russell Allen Scott’s Sweet Leela, I felt an immediate connection. The album was recorded at Hockley Valley’s Ecology Retreat Centre, where Scott once conducted healing retreats, and his time living in the Orangeville area inspired many of the songs.
The recording’s inviting and elegant tone takes listeners from a jazz swing on “Mr. Almost Mostly” to a bittersweet blues tune about spirit-breaking labour in the name of love on “Hardpan” to a waltz of lament on “Little Saviours.” On “Black and Blues” and “That’s the Way,” Larry Kurtz provides harmonica embellishments and Lisa Watson offers warm backing vocals throughout.
The album is dedicated to Scott’s daughter, Leela, whom he sings about lovingly in “Sweet Leela,” an uplifting tune about a special promise.
Sweet Leela is a musical and poetic delicacy available at russellscottfolk.com or by emailing russell9 [email protected]
Easter + Snowdaze
Musicians find catharsis in creating and sharing original music with others. Fortunately, this year Tyler Reed has chosen to release two EPs recorded in real time, completely improvised while borrowing ideas from ambient, jazz and post-rock genres.
A bass player with Delaney and the Sohayla Smith Band, Reed also teaches at Tritone Music School in Orangeville. Like many musicians who rely on live performances and in-person music instruction, he has found 2020 exasperating. As a result, he’s sharing the unique emotional soundscapes he recorded this year, reflecting his musical headspace and a style both ruminative and relaxing.
Both sides A and B of Easter were born out of frustration and recorded late at night on Easter Sunday, while “Snow Day” and “Eddie and Grace,” the tracks on Snowdaze, were written in 2018 but reached fruition this year. “Eddie and Grace” was inspired by guitarist Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic.
Reed uses guitar and bass and pedals to incorporate loops and drones into his pieces to satisfying effect, and he is currently working on a full album scheduled for release in the near future.