The Year in Music: 2021
Our annual review of recordings by local musicians taps into a collaborative music scene that has stayed busy despite a pandemic keeping many apart.
In 2015, legendary musician, composer and record producer Quincy Jones said, “We have no music industry. There’s 90 per cent piracy everywhere in the world. They take everything.”
Jones had a point when he vented his frustration, and I would never second guess one of the deans of the music world, but I believe that opportunities still abound.
Unlike the Buggles, whose single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was a hit more than 40 years ago, I don’t believe that videos spelled the beginning of the end for the “radio stars” of days gone by. It was transportability that killed the radio star and, indirectly, the music business.
Until recorded music became transferable to tapes, it was traditionally spun on a stationary phonograph in a living space. But the invention of the Walkman and similar devices meant listeners could move around and still hear their favourite tunes. Before long, music was being digitized onto plastic discs, and music lovers began vacuuming up digital music freely from the web. Today, recorded music travels everywhere on smartphones and tablets.
The more transportable music became, the more the music industry shrank.
There is justice in life, however, and the digitization that nearly vaporized the music industry seems to be making music increasingly accessible to a public eager to choose what they want to hear. Fans can reach out and connect one-on-one with individual artists and their work. The role of record-company gatekeepers has been minimized, and all musicians can now express themselves freely. Perhaps things are evolving as they should.
Yes, I’m a full blown “possibilitarian” who wears glasses coloured rose by positive expectations. Believe me, musicians are an adaptable lot who will continue to plant their flags on the web and use it to their advantage to grow an audience. The Weather Station, Ruby Waters, She The Archer, Olde, Sohayla Smith and others who hail from Headwaters are examples of how much is possible.
I encourage everyone to discover local music creators, and all musicians, by searching their websites and social media feeds and supporting them directly.
Louis Armstrong once said music is life itself. Let’s help nurture it, one-on-one.
On My Way to You
Singer-songwriter Shirley Eikhard is a Canadian treasure. She has written songs that have been recorded by Anne Murray, Chet Atkins, Alannah Myles, Rita Coolidge, Emmylou Harris and Cher. She is also a two-time Juno Award winner.
Eikhard wrote “Something to Talk About,” which became a Grammy Award-winning song for Bonnie Raitt. In 2020, when this Top-10 hit was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Raitt personally presented the award to Eikhard.
The longtime Mono resident continues to evolve as a songwriter, and her ability to play a number of instruments enables her to continuously reconfigure her songwriting skills. But her greatest instrument is her distinctive voice, which continues to soar alluringly on this new 12-song CD, On My Way to You.
The title track, an excerpt from a musical work in progress titled “House of the Blue Stars,” demonstrates Eikhard’s vocal passion and control. “Good News” also highlights her dark-edged singing prowess, which hints at a Sarah Vaughan sheen and Cleo Laine intonations.
My personal favourites are the funky “Don’t You Mess with My Groove” and the reggae-flavoured “Monsters in the Dark.”
This collection confirms Eikhard is still as dynamic and original a performer and songwriter as ever.
Pilgrimage is Olde’s third full-length album – and could be their best yet.
The Orangeville band’s reverence for crushing heaviness and the power of the riff remain, yet Olde have added ingredients that make Pilgrimage fresher, tighter and even more melodic than their 2017 release, Temple.
The opening track is mostly an instrumental prologue that displays thick, wide-open chords, setting the tone until Doug McLarty’s vocals enter to great effect.
Notable additions to the guitar handiwork of Greg Dawson and Chris Hughes include Daniel Mongrain of Voivod crushing a solo on “A New King” and drummer Ryan Aubin guitar soloing with aplomb on “The Dead Hand” and “Medico Della Peste.” The musically pliable Nichol Robertson also gets involved on “Depth Charge.” Nick Teehan provides some stealth saxophone on “The Dead Hand.”
Though bassist Cory McCallum and guitarist Dawson penned the songs pre-pandemic, recording the performances was a challenge. Aubin and Dawson created bed tracks live off the floor at BWC Studios, and additional parts were added later in layered events.
Dawson knows the sound he’s shooting for, however, and Pilgrimage is adroitly produced to sound sludgy, doomy, crushing – and brilliantly – Olde.
We Get By
Andrew McArthur and Falcon Jane
While society was locked for much of the past two years in a seemingly endless protective huddle, Falcon Jane, aka Sara May, and Andrew McArthur looked for ways to ease their way through the lethargy and uncertainty of a global pandemic. The result is We Get By, a recording that transforms five songs by well-known artists into something unique.
The EP’s title represents what many of us have been trying to do: get by. And somehow, hearing Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” through the prism of a female voice provides a comforting break from all things Covid.
John Prine’s music has helped many of us get through challenging times, and in the hands of McArthur and Falcon Jane, “Long Monday” carries us along, calling up wistful memories of special weekends. Broken Social Scene’s “Sweetest Kill” is covered admirably, with a pulsing backbeat supporting the haunting vocal that expresses the theme of love’s tragic dismemberment.
During a trying time, McArthur and Falcon Jane have ensured things are covered quite nicely.
If It Comes Down To It
When Shelburne-bred singer-songwriter Ruby Waters performs her original music, it resembles luxuriating in a musical bath of soul and fury. She sings from the heart with raw and effortless clarity.
One listen to her seven-song EP If It Comes Down to It and you’ll know you’re hearing a legend on the rise. Songs like “Fox,” “Difficult” and “On the Rocks” pack a passion punch that is nothing short of addictive. “Rabbit Hole” is an absolute highlight with Waters belting out the blues about masked feelings, a slide into loneliness and a yearning for friendship.
Ruby Waters was raised by musician parents who influenced her sound greatly. She proudly recalls that, as a kid, she wanted to sing just like her mom and play guitar just like her dad because they were badass, true legendary rock stars … and they still are.
Waters, who has developed her own style along the way, has already been compared to legends such as Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin, and she was handpicked as a support act for Juno Award-winning City and Colour at Massey Hall in Toronto.
Waters is already a musical force – and this emerging artist is just beginning.
Tyler Delaney Reed
Tyler Delaney Reed is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music instructor from Shelburne who has worked as a bassist for bands such as Delaney and the Sohayla Smith band. His latest work, Ancestry, features six guitar-based instrumentals ranging from ambient, fingerpicked acoustics to jam band-inspired guitar solos.
Reed incorporates loops, drones and improvisation to create melodies and emotional soundscapes he performed and recorded completely on his own. “Workingman’s Chant” and “Post Takoma” are examples of ethereal musical tonics, and “Gerhard’s Jam” is a jam groove I found delightfully reminiscent of early Traffic.
Reed says a deep love of jazz, ambient music and rock have influenced the music of Ancestry, and the cover art is inspired by visual artist Gerhard Richter.
This has been a challenging time for creators like Reed, but he draws inspiration from both nature and his journey of survival as a musician amid a pandemic. Coupled with his Readers’ Choice award from a local newspaper, his nomination for an Orangeville Arts and Culture Award shows he’s on the right track.
The Weather Station
Over the years, Tamara Lindeman’s Weather Station project has evolved in a most musically interesting way. I was introduced to the Weather Station in 2015 via the album Loyalty, which expresses Lindeman’s musical musings in her effectively intimate solo folk style. The eponymous The Weather Station followed, sporting more sonic body, strength and bite, along with a crystal clear presentation of the artist’s unique vocals.
This year, the Weather Station presents Ignorance with a recreated sound that is dense and explorative, including two drummers, strings, saxophone, flute, guitars and layers of keyboard. Lush and full-bodied, Ignorance is a recording that dazzles. Small wonder it made the short list for this year’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize.
Tamara Lindeman has said she wrote most of the songs on Ignorance during a period of deep thought that led to an understanding of the climate crisis.
“Tried to Tell You” personifies the Weather Station’s new sound. A pulsing tom rhythm vies for listeners’ attention, while the tune’s lyrics cleverly address ill-focused love, “dirt beneath the floor” and how we turn away from things we deeply love.
Ignorance is the Weather Station at its pinnacle – and worth every second of listening.
Brush is Andrew McArthur’s second solo collection, after Warez in 2019, and as anticipated, its music is uplifting and breezy. McArthur uses his rural surroundings and the inspiration of classic pop, jazz and rock to develop music that reflects peace and vulnerability filtered through the nature of his own personality.
The welcoming sound design on Brush instantly draws in listeners. The brisk cadence of the opening song, “Question,” introduces a four-song EP that is a relaxed and enjoyable musical journey.
“Lake,” the final song, starts as a slow dance into the sunset – until a shuffle rhythm change transmutes into 6/8 time that leaves us blissfully riding the rhythmic wake of an instrumental that ends all too soon.
Written, recorded and produced by McArthur, Brush was edited, mixed and mastered by Erick Bruck. I thoroughly enjoyed the mood it created, and I’m looking forward to more from McArthur.
Sohayla Smith’s musical engine has continued to rev since her 2020 release, I’ll Be the Meteor. In addition to opening for Jim Cuddy at last year’s Christmas on the Grand celebration in Elora and at Music in the Hills in Mulmur in June this year, Smith has released numerous original singles.
Her most recent is “Little Things,” a cover of a Colin Cripps song whose lyrics and melody grabbed her attention and left her feeling inspired. In addition to “Little Things,” she also released “All the Wrong Places,” an intimate piano ballad recently added by CD Baby Canada to its Sounds Canadian playlist. And “Better Man,” inspired by her son, was among both the top CanCon downloads and most active indies on Yangaroo. “Ten Steps Back,” a country shuffle she penned, also came our way this year.
Able to move adeptly between musical genres, Smith also recorded the original Latin singles “Soleá de Luto” and “Las Luces,” featuring her on guitar, cajon and keys, as well as “The Mermaid and the Sailor,” an instrumental original that features her violin, guitar, bodhrán and Irish whistle stylings.
The Shelburne resident is currently working with award-winning producer Jeff Dalziel on more music.
I can’t wait to hear the results.
“Hate U Less”
She The Archer
To put it mildly, She The Archer, aka Hannah Chapplain, has been busy this year. She has some miraculous creations to show for 2021, and these include “Hate U Less,” her first official musical release in nearly a decade. Co-written with Emmy Award-winning Nashville songwriter and producer Trey Bruce, this single is fresh and different from Chapplain’s previous releases. Recorded beautifully, “Hate U Less” is a love reconciliation song with a creative lyrical twist, a loping rhythm and a mellow and mature vocal styling. A new perspective leaks through, and the companion video, lovingly produced by Sara May of True Nature Media, helps clinch the sentiment. Since experiencing her first performance rush as a six-year-old singing onstage with her father, Chapplain, whose hometown is Alton, has been building toward creating original music that is patently her own. This single certainly hits that mark.
For a few decades, as Tom Griffiths recorded with artists such as Dan Hill, Corey Hart, Dean McTaggart, BB Gabor, Kevin Breit and countless others, a melody tumbled around in his head. When Covid lockdowns gave the Alton resident time to experiment musically, he began working in earnest on the tune that had taken up residence in his consciousness.
Using tech tools new to him, a tiny keyboard and his trusty bass guitar, Griffiths created a musical foundation, then enlisted a little help from some heavyweight musical friends. Soon the involuntary melody came to life as “Jalan Jalan.”
“Jalan Jalan” is uplifting world music featuring players that include Mark Kelso, Charlie Cooley, Don Baird, Jim Casson, Cam MacInnes, Victoria Yeh and Wayne Kelso, who each created and recorded their tracks remotely.
The single is a stunning example of a musical community unselfishly supporting a fellow musician to help develop a 40-year-old ear worm into masterful music. For Griffiths himself, “Jalan Jalan” is simply a celebration of putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward no matter what gets in the way.