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CD Review: Jay Linden – Under the Radar

Some people work so far beneath the surface it makes you start to wonder if that’s where they prefer to be. Such would be the case with this extremely understated little record from a severely self-deprecating singer-songwriter hailing from Toronto via Cambridge, Ontario.

Aptly titled Under the Radar – which couldn’t be closer to the truth – the talent that rises off this unassuming, 16-song disc may scuttle Jay Linden’s plans to revel in the obscurity that has lovingly embraced him for so long. For too long. Under the Radar is, quite simply, the best record I’ve encountered in a long time.

Deceptively simple, its sparse production focuses attention on Linden’s hearth-warm, wonderful vocals and basic, acoustic accompaniment – with a dash of harp and the occasional hit of banjo. Yet the record’s key success – and the reason why it’s easily radar-bait – is the quality of the songwriting. Backhanded sophistication is a term that might serve him well – from the opening strains of “Baltimore” with its reincarnation of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana” to the lonely, penetrating edge of “Train” with its affecting harp and dobro.

His familiar-sounding vocals are, indeed, chameleonic: an uncanny blend of Warren Zevon (“Baltimore”), John Hartford (“When the Time is Gone”) to James McMurtry (“Foot Of Glory”). Each track is sung as if written by Guy Clark, Newman, John Prine and Willie P., Linden arriving at a place in each song that uses just the right character to satisfy each well-written tale. All served up within the context of a folk record, Under the Radar is delivered by a colourful individual who appears to hail from somewhere much more worldly than Cambridge, all the while providing songs that project a unique sense of place, embraced by a strong sense of self and enhanced through a keen sense of humour.

jaylindenradarStrong originals like the ever-hopeful “When The Morning Comes Around” join the dark inevitability of “When The Time Is Gone” to form as sturdy a piece of Canadiana bedrock as ever has been. Linden ‘borrows’ unapologetically – “It’s A Crooked Train” reminiscent of “You Are My Sunshine”; Gillespie & Smith’s “That Lucky Old Sun” is lovingly reworked into a variation on Glenn Frey’s “Desperado”.

Concerned that Lowell George might rise from the grave for his application of banjo to “20 Million Things”, Linden’s cover proves – instead – a stroke of genius, adding depth to the sacrosanct. Or Linden’s two covers of Willie P. material, revealing the clear impact and guiding force of Willie’s spirit on his work. Payback with heart and soul. Add to this Linden’s self-accompaniment on all manner of instruments – as eclectic a mix as ever to be found on a folk collection, joined by no less than Colin Linden (yes, they’re brothers-in-arms) on various stringed instruments (who also produced and engineered), Chris Donahue on stringed bass and his cat, Bootz, volunteering specific background vocals.

The fact that this record was recorded in Linden’s basement adds to its intimacy and direct-to-listener feel. Hard to believe that Under the Radar is only Linden’s second album (he released Satchel in ’06) because it sounds like he’s been doing it all his life. Yet the maturity behind songs like “Some Folks Do” and “Coming Through” stems from spending 45 years mining away, perfecting his ‘life in the background’. He started in earnest back in the ‘70s and, gathering some degree of momentum, decided to stop – cold turkey – taking the next two decades off.

To think that he only got back to it “for something to do with my hands” upon quitting a 35-year smoking habit is to wonder what else he’s capable of should he decide to forsake his other bad habits. Until then, develop a new bad habit of your own, allowing Under the Radar to take you prisoner like it has me.

Highly personal. Delightfully intimate. Hugely rewarding. Try as he might to hide away, Jay Linden’s name will soon be smeared all over the place. Lord knows how he’ll run from the accolades, which are bound to follow.

Eric Thom is a music writer and photographer whose work appears in Blues Revue, Sing Out!, Penguin Eggs, and Exclaim!

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