02 Rose CousinsNatural Conclusion
Rose Cousins
Old Farm Pony Records OFPR021 (rosecousins.com)

I first heard Halifax-based, singer-songwriter Rose Cousins live at a café in Vancouver (my then home), almost nine years ago. I’d discovered her two days earlier, listening to a CBC Radio broadcast of a concert that had been recorded in Halifax a month before. As I tuned in, I caught this soul-searing voice, mid-song. “Who IS that?” I shouted at the radio. When her name was announced, I immediately googled it, and found out that Cousins was scheduled to play at this café two days later. Talk about timing!

Since then, Cousins has garnered international accolades, won several East Coast Music and Canadian Folk Music awards and a JUNO, and released a variety of CDs and singles. Natural Conclusion, her fourth and latest, full-length album, is a real stunner! Each track displays Cousins’ gifts as a storyteller. Achingly beautiful lyrics are perfectly paired with the emotional intensity of her music. And then there’s her striking voice that simply will transport you.

Freedom is an evocative take on letting go, knowing it comes with loss and heartbreak. Cousins calls it a “wreckoning.” White Flag and Lock and Key might make you cry – a common reaction to much of her affecting work. Cousins’ response to the teary-eyed? “You’re welcome.”

Rose Cousins is the real McCoy: a songwriter’s songwriter; an open-hearted troubadour; a gracious collaborator who consistently works with some of the best in the biz. Natural Conclusion is testament to all that. A truly authentic voice, this rose is on the rise!

01 SyrinxTumblers from the Vault
Syrinx
Rervng RWRVNG08 (igetrvn.com)

In Tumblers from the Vault, series conceiver William Blakeney continues his collectively titled JMC Retrospective 1967-1977, highlighting the early career recorded music of John Mills-Cockell. A Toronto-born composer, keyboardist and pioneering synthesizer performer, Mills-Cockell was not only an early adapter of the modular synth – he purchased a Moog Mark IIP the same winter of 1968 when the American studio synth trailblazers Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani acquired theirs – but he also swiftly put that early model synth to good use in live performances across Canada and the USA. Furthermore, it featured prominently on the Intersystems albums reissue reviewed in these pages last year.

By 1970, Mills-Cockell’s next music project had emerged: Syrinx was a trio which included two other Toronto musicians, saxophonist Doug Pringle and percussionist Alan Wells. Armed with Mills-Cockell’s compositions and suffused with his increasingly musically confident synth performances, in a couple of years they produced the hit single Tillicum as well as two successful albums Syrinx and Long Lost Relatives. Tumblers from the Vault has carefully remastered those recordings and added previously unreleased material. Dissolving by 1972, during that brief period they managed to merge many music genre threads. I can hear traces of experimental, classical, psych-rock, global influences, proto-ambient, pop, funk and jazz all delivered with a sensitivity for memorable melody, timbral exploration and technological innovation.

I find in the new tracks some of the most musically engaging moments of the box set. These include the extended demo version of December Angel in an ever-evolving dance-friendly 6/8, and particularly the adventurous four-movement, 26-minute Stringspace (1971) for string orchestra, percussion and Syrinx trio. This, the most ambitious work here, points to even larger Mills-Cockell projects yet to come.

As Nick Storring offers in his insightful liner essay, “Syrinx’s music is more than a faded strain in Canada’s consciousness […one that] has never expanded universally.” Can Tumblers from the Vault elevate the short-lived Syrinx to a “place in the wider canon of groundbreaking music, so its story can be appreciated beyond the limits of Canadian notoriety,” as posited by Storring? I can’t say. What I can is that this music from the last century welcomes us to imagine listening to future music which flows freely and amicably across multiple genre boundaries.

02 Kristina BijelicMinstrelle
Kristina Bijelic; Felipe Tellez
Independent (kristinabijelicvox.com)

This imaginative project is not only a tour-de-force for the female voice and a celebration of a distinctly feminine journey (hence the title), but it is also the manifestation of the creative partnership between Toronto-born, multilingual, genre-fluid, classically trained vocalist and lyricist Kristina Bijelic and noted Colombian composer and orchestrator, Felipe Tellez. The six evocative, brilliantly produced, original compositions presented here, embrace a variety of ethnic influences and cultural motifs as well as elegant and poetic English, Spanish and Serbian lyrics written by Bijelic. The infusion of Tellez’s stirring orchestral arrangements (performed by the Budapest Art Orchestra) are nothing short of magic.

Of special note is the opening track, On the Horizon. The spaciousness of the composition seems to symbolize the intoxicating lure of travel, of taking the first steps of an irresistible journey. Bijelic’s rich, sonorous alto voice is as resonant as a fine cello, and like a cello, it is a pure conduit for the expression of the deepest emotions. Also stunning is Enamorarme de ti (Falling in Love with You). Based on a traditional Spanish bolero, the Latin rhythmic elements and complex, contrapuntal moving string lines transport the listener into a romantic idyll.

Near the end of the album’s journey is the jazz-influenced Wandering, which is perhaps the most cinematic composition on the CD, bringing to mind the Film Noir of the 1940s and 50s, and Devajačka Pesma (Girl’s Song) is a total delight. Traditional Balkan motifs, chord progressions and instrumentation, as well as the dynamic vocal by Bijelic, make this particular fusion of musics not only original, but thrilling.

03 Shirley Eikhard

I Am the Hero
Shirley Eikhard
Independent (shirleyeikhard.ca)

Review

Singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Shirley Eikhard has been a popular and successful mainstay of the Canadian music circuit for decades. In this, her “20th record of new performances,” she multitasks and does practically everything, from singing the lead and backup vocals to her own songs, playing all the instruments, producing, and painting the CD cover art, with help in artwork/design from Catherine Osborne, and mixing and mastering from George Seara.

This is a very personal musical journey and gift to us, the listeners, as Eikhard touches on her country, jazz, folk and reggae influences and weaves elaborate stories in her lyrics. The tragic love story of My Diego unwinds like a bestseller murder mystery novel set to upbeat toe-tapping music. Likewise the title track, I Am the Hero is an illuminating look at self-exploration. In contrast, the instrumental Carmen’s Revenge proves Eikhard is equally stunning in both lead and improvisational instrumentals in this funky, jazz-tinged track, though a list of what instruments are being played would have been greatly appreciated. Closing track Comforts of the Country is hit material as it combines great lyrics, vocals, upbeat melodies and grooves.

Eikhard is a master of creating satisfying sing-along, ear-worm musical hooks that resonate long after the CD is back on the shelf. It may be too pop for one’s tastes with looping melodic sections and the typical three-minute, radio-friendly track length, but this is really, really fun music!

Solstice Spirit – The Musical Visions of Sister Gildaherd the Benign
Kirk Elliott
Pipistrelle Music KESS2016 (pistrellemusic.com/kirk-elliott)

Kirk Elliott.jpgMulti-instrumentalist and merry prankster Kirk Elliott has been very busy preparing for the onset of winter, it seems. Following up on his 2015 release Widdershins – the Legend of Tristan Shoute, the master of parody and deceit has outdone himself on this latest offering, just in time for Solstice celebrations. As is his wont, Elliott plays no end – literally – of plucked, bowed, blown, squeezed and banged instruments spanning centuries and cultures (i.e. from Renaissance lute and psaltery, to balalaika, sitar and guzeng, Celtic harp to harmonica and accordion to electric guitar, to name just a few). He gets a little help from friends Rebecca Campbell (sultry voice), Don Rooke (honey-dripping Hawaiian slide guitar), Alison Melville (tuneful tenor recorders) and Ben Grossman (hardy hurdy-gurdy) on a few tracks, but this is mostly a solo project.

​Whereas in Widdershins Elliott created a heroic character who appeared in various guises and historical time periods, in this instance the conceit is the story of a young woman who rises through the ranks of a nunnery to eventually be elected Mother Superior. This is a title and position she rejects however as she abolishes the hierarchy in favour of an equitable sisterhood. So, who was Sister Gildaherd the Benign? We are told that “The youngest of twelve children, Gildaherd lost her entire family within months, due to primitive medical conditions, jousting, and head cheese. Relocated to an obsolete convent, she was tormented by insomnia – until she found a mysterious herbal cure, which somehow rendered her susceptible to auditory hallucinations.” Elliott has created an imaginative, festive collection of Gildaherd’s musical visions, from reworkings of The Huron Carol and Edi beo thu to She’s Like the Swallow and Polorum Saskatoona. The last mentioned is Elliott’s take on the medieval Marian hymn Polorum Regina, “Queen of Heaven,” in a Canadian variant substituting his hometown of Saskatoon for the namesake capital city of Saskatchewan.

​Elliott’s original alias Tristan Shoute himself also makes an appearance, at least off-stage, in the album, with a visit to the convent where he briefly tutors the sisters in the musical arts, and leaves in his wake a string of “virgin” births. The musical styles included in this Solstice offering are as eclectic as Elliott himself and I thank him for sharing his wit, wisdom and wonderful musicality with us again.

David Olds is reviews editor at The WholeNote. He can be reached at discoveries@thewholenote.com.

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