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Westrin & Mowry – The Past Rushes In

It has been over a year since my last review but something about Americana folk-pop duo Westrin & MowWM+Coverry’s long-awaited sophomore release, The Past Rushes In, begged for an in-depth listen. The duo features singer-songwriter Brian Westrin and producer/multi-instrumentalist Peter Mowry who have not worked together since their 2005 debut, One Week Epiphany.

Beginning with the opening title-track, it is quite apparent that Westrin & Mowry have put plenty of thought and care into the flow of this album – as it listens the way a great novel reads. The haunting title track creeps in, like a forgotten memory, with Mowry’s warm acoustic plucks (bringing to mind Nick Drake’s commanding use of space). Not to be out done, Westrin paints a bleak picture of a relationship that is tested to its limits; “How long can we sit here alone? How long can we talk on the phone? How long till the past rushes in and destroys us?”

Pretty powerful stuff, but this doom and gloom does not set the tone of the album, there are some positive revelations here as well. For example, “Something Missing” features some beautiful accordion, organ and steel guitar layers with Westrin at his most commanding wishing “you give me one more try”. Other highlights include the 70’s pop shuffle, “Never Alone”, the country power ballad “Ghost Of A Chance” which has Mowry channeling Elton John and “White Flag” is yet another example of folk-music produced to perfection.

With The Past Rushes In, I’m happy to report that the chemistry between the duo have only grown stronger during their long absence. Don’t be too surprised to see this on many Top Ten list by years end. ~ 4/5 Stars

Westrin & Mowry- Bandcamp

David St. Germain, My Country Song

Music runs through David St. Germain’s veins. His father, Ray St. Germain is in the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and his sister Sherry is marking her own retro-pop path. David, in his own right, is an accomplished and seasoned performer, heck, he started playing gigs with his father at the young age of 12. So, how does his debut album hold-up after years of slogging it on the road?

As the album title suggests, David is sticking to his roots, but with a leaner and grittier country-rock attitude. These big sounds are expertly harnessed by producers Chris Sutherland and Howard Klopak.

Now, let’s get to the songs. First off, for those listeners looking to be challenged lyrically or musically…you’ve come to the wrong place. I know how awful that sounds but you can’t get past how clichéd most of this album is. Saying that, once you stop taking My Country Song too seriously, it gets to be quite enjoyable.

“Radio” opens with a familiar guitar riff before David belts out in that soulful voice: “It’s that song on the radio/I want to get back out on the road/say so long/Yeah, I’ve gotta go/these highways road to another show”. Yeah, I told you it was pretty soppy stuff, but before you know it, your humming it at work! The next four tracks build on this formula, “Over Again”, “Everybody Changes”, “Come Home” and “Exactly What I Needed” are all fun country pop-songs with repetitive, emotional build-ups that make for classic live songs.

Then comes in the title track, a song so horrible that it almost ruins any connection that David and the boys happened to make with the listener. It’s just one of those extremely dated 80’s hair metal songs that just comes off nasty. The final three songs make up for this mess as the appropriately titled “Beautiful”, a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” and “The Duel” suggest a route that St. Germain should focus on – heart-felt ballads and spaghetti westerns. (Mind Meld Music) ~ 3 Stars

David St. Germain – Official Site

Terry Penney, The Last Guitar

Newfoundland singer-songwriter Terry Penney is launching his fifth album on Valentines Day; some artists would take advantage of this day to drop an album full of love ballads. Thankfully, Penney’s smart collection of country songs explore (and celebrate) the meaning of family, war and religion with equal passion.

The Last Guitar opens with the heart warming country jig, “Girl From Coal Creek Canyon”, a beautiful and simple love story that gives root to a family tree. Following up are two of my favourites: “Shoal Harbour” feels like an ode to his grandparents home; while “Not Without a Fight” triggers a defining moment (being bullied) into a life-long mantra.

The first war-themed song “I Have Offered” is a touching listen about a young man wanting to go to war, but, because of a fishing accident, was rejected from service. The song ends with the young man attempting to join once again, leaving the listener wondering his outcome. “Shells” is another song that sees a soldier returning from war with a very different perspective on life. Penney is at his best here, giving the word shell a deeper double meaning. Perhaps these songs are of the same story – the young man got his wish but returned with a new-found love of his past?

I can only go on and on about how vivid these songs are though because of the subtle music that connects them. It feels like these songs have a deep history to them that they have been tested on the road or in front of friends. For example, “Jesus Crisis” is from the eyes of a priest wondering about the state of religion, the song is quite sad but is buoyed with hopeful banjo, group harmonies and mandolin.

Terry Penney has crafted a wonderful album that displays all his best qualities – fun and interesting songwriting, catchy tunes and an eager love of capturing that perfect song. (Independent) ~ 4 Stars

Terry Penney – Official Site

Norma MacDonald, Morning You Wake

2009 ECMA nominee, Norma MacDonald’s third album, Morning You Wake, is an easy-to-love collection of country songs that gets better with every listen. MacDonald and producer Phil Sedore have taken the time and consideration to create a diverse collection of stories that hit an emotional note with the listener.

“Cordelia” greets the listener with a simple accordion line and MacDonald’s beautiful voice as she reflects on a life-long friendship. She continues to score big on heartfelt follow-ups “Lesson Learned”, “Ages” and “Bright as You Dare”; All feature different arrangements that resonate a country vibe but are alt-rock, pop and jazz influenced respectively.

I won’t hold you back this time, you were meant to burn and shine, and I was made for leaving behind, so go where you’re going….

This is one of my favourite lines on the record and is the theme for key track, “Canada Day”. When MacDonald hits that line, instead of sounding resentful or bitter, she celebrates the growth of this person with harmonious layers of organ, steel lap and horns. Again, MacDonald reaches folk perfection on the brooding “Black Hearts of the Company” a song based on Cape Breton coal-miner William Davis, who was shot and killed by mining police during a protest in 1925; This track could have fit perfectly on Bruce Springsteen’s Devils & Dust.

Calling Morning You Wake a country-pop record would be an injustice as every track tackles the country genre from a different point of view and like MacDonald’s life-worn poetry they take you on a journey….you just have to give it some time. (Independent)

4/5 Stars

Norma MacDonald – Official Site

Amy Cunningham, To The Stars We’ll Return…

Vancouver’s Amy Cunningham loves music; her commitment to the craft extends back to her childhood, singing with her guitar-wielding grandfather at family events eventually leading to her writing songs at a very young age. Come university, the muse was too strong for her to ignore, she immediately co-fronted a popular acoustic duo that regularly played in front of 300 people at the local campus bar and even opened for singer-songwriter Jeremy Fisher.

All these experiences have led to Cummingham’s satisfying debut, To The Stars We’ll Return. Produced by Corwin Fox (Scott Dunbar, Miss Emily Brown), his deft production style has given these simple folk treatments a dramatic flair that also gives weight to Cunningham’s wide-eyed poetry. But, without solid songs, Fox wouldn’t have anything to craft around and at the very heart of this project are Cunningham’s heart-to-heart writing style that is so easy to identify with.

Opening track, “Real” is a soul-pop number that celebrates artists and music that soothes the soul. This is followed up by the roots flavoured; “Freedom” which captures Cunningham’s current touring situation as she “travels up and down this road so wide” and third track “Similar Soul” features a beautiful string arrangement that really challenges Cunningham’s vocals – of  course she hits every note pitch perfect, full of emotion.

Other highlights include the haunting “Saving Grace”, the folk-licking “We Are The Ones” which will be featured on the sustainability documentary Community Connections by Chris Carter and my personal favourite “Don’t Say A Word” an intimate portrait of uncertain lust.

Amy Cunningham’s To The Stars is an accessible brand of country-soul that will please most fans while those looking to be challenged might find it a tad too safe. (Independent)

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Amy Cunningham – Official Site

Carmel Mikol, Creature

Cape Breton’s Carmel Mikol is making quite a name for herself since releasing her independent debut, In My Bones. Besides being a triple nominee at the 2011 East Coast Music Awards, she has managed to garner international attention by winning both The 2010 Great American Song Contest and The International Singer Songwriter Awards Contest in the folk category.

But, let’s put aside all those accolades because in the end they really don’t matter. Sure, it is nice to win awards but Mikol knows the only true way to effect people is by baring your soul on stage; and these eight simple folk songs are tailored made for that intimate live setting.

I should note that Creature is hip with the digital age, coming with a companion e-book for those that pre-order the album. The e-book is a brilliant idea and a beautiful piece of work that will give fans a greater appreciation for the album and an even more personal look into the inner workings of Mikol’s heart. The first line in the book says:

“I collected all my father’s journals after he died. I read them slowly….Searching, searching”.

We begin our journey with Mikol’s father as he breaks away for the border seeking the Canadian Dream; the opening title track sets the tone for the entire record, a deep resonance of old-time country and poignant, poetic consciousness that will remind fans of Sarah Harmer and Bright Eyes.

From there we are taken on a journey through the human experience: “Lion and Lamb” flows like a hip-hop scat about being unable to escape where you grew up while “Somewhere Else” yearns to be swept off by a soul-mate. “Leaver” and “Made” are straight up, country hoe-downs about our very basic human desires and “Twenty Something Girl” is loaded with political truths about our destructive nature.

“You left a carbon print, where you laid, the breath that started it, slow fade” – is only one of the many tender lines on the deeply personal and final poem, “I Miss the Moon”. The tearful ballad is a beautiful ode to life and is obvious that the wound of her father’s death is still fresh.

Creature succeeds in capturing her father’s memories through the country-folk tradition; creating memorable songs that get carried from one person to another. I’m sure that throughout her searching Mikol found out more about herself than about her father; All that is here for the listener to take in. (Independent)

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Carmel Milkol – Official Site

The Twilite Broadcasters, The Trail Of Time

With the Winnipeg Folk Festival wrapping up this weekend, it was fitting coming home to The Twilite Broadcasters. A traditional roots duo from Asheville, North Carolina, these guys embody everything genuine about old-time country, folk and bluegrass. The band’s second album, Trail of Time, is composed of classic and traditional Americana tunes and Adam Tanner (mandolin, guitar, fiddle and vocals) and Mark Jacks (guitar and vocals) are here to school new and old listeners on how to play the country blues.

Opening with the Tanner original “North Buncombe Gallop” you get an idea of where their hearts lie. North Buncombe is a county in North Carolina that spans across many cities, so the track brings to mind The Broadcasters own journey, touring relentlessly through these back roads. Just like jazz musicians, these guys are master storytellers that get your imagination in overdrive.

The duo’s first interpretation is The Carter Family’s “Coal Miner Blues” and this track always kills me. Starting off with the line “Some blues are just blues, mine are the coal miner blues” well, what is the difference between the blues and coal miner blues? The response gets worse as the track goes on but ends with, “for my face will cave in, and my life I will lose”. Tanner and Jacks skillfully play around one another and their vocal harmonies go together like peanut butter and jelly – the perfect blend that transcends time.

Other highlights include The Louvin Brother’s ballads “I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me” and “Lorene” both capture the feeling of complete hopelessness. “Lorene” especially tugs at the heart, I picture a man at war pleading for a letter from his women “I hope your still waiting, but your last letter is way over due” then a beautiful, simple mandolin line sums up our character’s soul. It sounds like an album full of ballads, but no worries, the group pulls out some barn-burners including Bill Monroe’s “Land of Lincoln” and “The Fiddler’s Dream” – both are gloriously fun and rowdy instrumental numbers.

I could go on and on about The Twilite Broadcasters but the only way to get them is to hear it. The Trail of Time captures the spirit of just not America – but the heart and soul of the musical genre we so broadly call Country. (Shut Eye Records/Pete Knapp & Co)

Rating 4.5/5 Stars

The Twilite Broadcasters – Official Site

Sarah Cripps, Practice

Sarah Cripps is only 19 but with a decade of experience under her belt she has caught the ears of powerhouse producer David Kalmusky (Emerson Drive, The Road Hammers) and songwriter David Martin (Adam Gregory, Hemingway Corner) and this quick 5-song EP does the job of leaving you wanting more.

Innocently entitled, Practice, it becomes quite clear from the get-go on pop-country rocker “Getaway Car” that Cripps is an experienced singer with a naturally powerful voice that can ache, “He had a way of walking, that made a girl’s head turn around” without it sounding forced. Over and over again, Cripps works her magic especially on the soaring “You Got Me” the steamy title track and both “Just Sing” and “Me” could have been standard country-pop affairs but Cripps brings all of them to a whole new level with her honest portrayals.

If I had to place a bet on one female singer to make waves in the next couple of years, Sarah Cripps would definitively take the lead; Strong production team, catchy and consistently enjoyable songs along with Cripps own versatility as a musician (she can easily go edgier or be a polished baby-face) there is no reason for Country music fans and record companies to eat this up. (Independent)

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Sarah Cripps – Official Site

Erin Haley, House On Fire

Erin Haley

Having never heard of Erin Haley I had to check out her debut album, Second First Impressions, before I could properly critique her follow-up release. It took a while, but I eventually found Haley’s unkempt MySpace featuring some old tracks. While they are excellently recorded and produced, they don’t sound like they were written with Haley in mind. What they do show is her transformation from sassy cowgirl to sophisticated country Grrl on her electric sophomore, House On Fire.

Opener, “Waiting For The End Of The World” is a huge arrangement starting off with MIDI keyboard explosions and layers of menacing fiddle (yes, it is possible!) and edgy guitar parts before segueing into a light-hearted swing before punching back into the wild rock chorus. Ending in a bright and hopeful string section – it’s clear that Haley is securing her country-pop identity. “Right Where You Left It” and “Mean Streak” continue with these bold statements as she finds a balance between radio-friendly country and urban coffeehouse folk. Now, don’t worry country music lovers there are still plenty of boogie-woogie tracks; “That Just Don’t Seem Right” and “Mama Says” have plenty of attitude and sound ready-made for Dolly Parton.  Softer songs like, “If There Ever Was” and “Don’t Think I Won’t” will bring to mind some of The Dixie Chicks poppier moments.

In the end, what makes Haley’s House On Fire so damn good is her ability to project all those raw emotions into songs written for her (although, I should mention she co-writes on two tracks) and with her keen ear for blending old and new sounds there’s no stopping Canada’s best kept secret. (Independent)

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Erin Haley’s Official Website

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