Ice Age Paradise
Independent SEN06 (siennadahlen.com)
Joel Miller; Sienna Dahlen
Origin Records 82713 (originarts.com)
Sienna Dahlen follows the great line of Canadian vocalists who commit to disc the poetry of music written from the heart. She also reveals that she is a queen of bright timbre and contrasting colours; a lyrical vocalist par excellence. On Ice Age Paradise she plays characters that are elementally flawed and tragic, revealing the raw wounds of their emotions as they rise up in the throat. The performance is a visceral one that flirts dangerously close to music’s nerve endings. Dahlen has in her sights a pure kind of poetry. How beautifully Venezia dances its ghostly waltz here, the flowing speed perfectly judged by conductor Andrew Downing to give the rhythms a lift and allow Dahlen to phrase the poem in unbroken sentences with total naturalness. Throughout, Dahlen is an engaging storyteller who brings to life a narrative almost completely visualized in monochrome. But as surely as night turns to day, voice, piano and bass, horns and cello, guitar and drums open the door to an attractive, songful luminosity that glimmers as if from a rainbow-coloured gossamer web.
On Dream Cassette, Dahlen teams up with an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Joel Miller who, in each of 12 original songs here, has tempered his arsenal of sophisticated compositional resources with fond and haunting reminiscences reflecting the contours of New Brunswick’s rich and yet starkly dramatic cultural landscape. The mostly unfamiliar tunes serve as unifying devices, which in the hands of Miller and Dahlen, together with a crack ensemble, elevate their intentions through deconstruction in a variety of unexpected ways. Songs such as Flying Dream and Corey Heart are densely evocative and hypnotic musical embroideries while the audacious Streamlined is at once raucous and poignantly eloquent. There is a wonderful kaleidoscopic palette of vocal colours from Miller’s saxophones throughout, with plenty of sonorous bloom for high and lonesome notes. For her part, Dahlen brings an ethereal beauty to this recording, singing gloriously as she rises fluently to the stately melodic lines of Miller’s music.
This self-titled CD is a fetching collection of original tunes by the Toronto-based duo Emilyn Stam (on fiddle and accordion) and John Williams (on clarinet and harmonica). Drawing on their individual and joint experience in a broad range of musical genres, they deftly blur the lines between the traditional/folk and experimental/improv worlds with inventive artistry. Fiddle and clarinet are the predominant colours throughout; these blend remarkably well here – kudos to the engineer for capturing such a great sound from the tricky-to-record clarinet!
Whether in waltzes, jigs, blues or more-outside-the-box tunes – my personal favourites being the Tim-Burton-meets-the-klezmorim Sleepless Waltz and the quizzical Waltz from Hawaii Bar – there’s a whole lot to enjoy here. Stam and Williams play with colourful and expressive nuance, and their enjoyment of what they’re doing is palpable. Much instrumental virtuosity is on display here too but it’s all in good service to the music, and the occasional forays into what some of us might call “extended techniques” just add to the pleasure. Some very hot clarinet playing can be heard in The New Rule, and when Stam switches to accordion halfway through this tune, the blend of the two reed colours is brilliant.
This is creative, witty and beautiful music making, and I hope we all hear a lot more from this duo. I first knew of Emilyn Stam’s playing through her work with the late great Oliver Schroer; as I listen here, I can almost see him beaming in the background.
Little Hinges is the third album by Qristina and Quinn Bachand, a brother-sister folk/roots duo from the West Coast. Split into two distinct sections, this album is a curious blend of old and new – traditional songs are mixed with original tunes, and numerous sound fragments (such as steps, doors, crackles – adding an interesting textural component) are incorporated throughout. The first half of the recording, although containing a couple of original tunes, has a traditional Celtic roots feel to it. The moving Crooked Jack is a standout with captivating vocals, textured claw-hammer banjo and lovely violin lines. The short interlude Little Hinges sets the mood for the second half of the album – dreamier, darker, with a hint of the cinematic, a glimpse into a different world. Hang Me is dark and gloomy, with many textural layers and beautiful arrangements. Three Little Babies smartly increases the distorted textural sounds throughout to emphasize the emotion of the song. The album concludes with a bright traditional tune with a homey feel – Hangman’s Reel – showcasing both Qristina and Quinn on fiddles.
I appreciated the notes and descriptions relating to each song in the liner notes – it added a layer of intimacy, a sense of familiarity with the music. Although young, Qristina and Quinn are both award-winning musicians and engaging performers. Their synergy captivates the listener on every level – truly enjoyable.
Luminous vocalist/composer Stephanie Martin not only possesses a delicious vocal instrument, but on her new, completely appealing recording, she also demonstrates her considerable chops as a composer of accessible, highly musical material. Expertly produced and co-written by the brilliant Chad Irschick, this gorgeously crafted CD is comprised entirely of original compositions arranged with intelligence and skill … in fact, Martin’s musical expression is beautifully defined by the harmonically satisfying vocal and instrumental arrangements.
The talented musicians who join Martin on the project include gifted multi-instrumentalist Tom Szczesniak on bass, keyboards and accordion, David MacDougall on drums (whose work is the strong, invigorating and steady pulse of the recording), Brian Barlow on percussion, Michael “Pepi” Francis on acoustic and electric guitars, Chad Irschick and Steve O’Connor on keyboards and yeoman featured guest vocalist Neil Donell.
Martin incorporates a number of influences into her vocal and writing style – transcending definitions and embracing elements of contemporary, pop, country and jazz musics. Her clear, stunning soprano (slightly reminiscent of the late, great, Nicolette Larson) deftly glides over the 13 satisfying melodies, making it all seem so easy and organic – replete with poetic lyrics that detail vivid and visceral life experiences to which we can all relate. Top tracks include the rhythmic and exciting Brazilian-influenced Roundabout; the anthem of independence, No Hard Feeling; the blistering political statement, Circle of Elders, featuring face-melting guitar work from Francis; the gorgeous ballad, The Sweater Song, made all the lovelier by Szczesniak’s acoustic piano and the album closer, No One in Particular, a gentle and uplifting vocal duet with Donell.
I cannot think of anything more exciting for any electric guitar super fan than listening to the Electric Guitar Quartet. Guitarists Tim Brady, Gary Schwartz, Michel Héroux and Antoine Berthiaume are each formidable instrumentalists who join listening and technical forces touching on all styles of guitar, be it rock, funk, new music, etc.
Three composed works are featured here. Brady’s The Same River Twice: Symphony # 5.0 is full of symphony orchestra-like harmonies, riffs, guitar effects adventures, a funky waltz and an intense closing section featuring loud verbal rhythmic counting. Each group section is divided by refreshing solo guitar meanderings. Brady then takes on this work as a solo piece. The Same River Twice Symphony #5.Solo is more introspective and different in its attitude. It feels more programmatic with its washes of sound in Freeze, and the dripping effects in Thaw.
Berthiaume’s Fungi is a sensitive and classical flavoured ensemble work in 6/4 time with its peaceful interludes and sections alluding to film and tango reminiscent dance music. Brady then remixes two live studio performances of Rainer Wiens’ What is Time? Wiens imaged it as a “series of clouds, constantly changing…” by utilizing different guitar preparations either fixed or performed in random order and requiring each performer to listen to each other’s breathing. The result is a sonic blast of washes and effects.
This is great happy music to be enjoyed over and over again!