Each month or so, Gordy the Moose goes through the new music and videos that have arrived in the Roots Music Canada virtual mailbox and picks a few favourites to showcase on the site. Gordy got a bit busy out in the bush this summer and fall and didn’t keep up with his monthly columns, but he did catch up on his listening over the holidays and finished it in time to bring you this: his annual compilation of favourites from the mailbox.
Bet Smith – Downer
A one-time west coast back-to-lander, who lived without power or running water, grew food and cooked it over an open fire, Bet Smith comes by her anxieties about the future of the planet honestly. That could be why Downer, so named because it unfolds like a stream-of-consciousness exploration of said anxieties, doesn’t feel like much of a downer to listen to. In fact, any twinge of melancholy evoked by the material is eclipsed by the thrill of discovering such a compelling talent.
There’s no pretense or preachiness in these songs at all, nothing cliché, and no sense of the material being forced. There are topics here that I’ve never before heard explored in song, such as on “I Would Rather Run,” a bleak country-noir number about a couple anticipating the decline of civilization by debating whether to buy a gun or flee. Another stand-out is “North Ontario,” a heartbreaking song of loss that alludes to how no amount of self-sufficiency prepares you for being alone. The album relies heavily on acoustic and electric guitars and vintage effects to create a sombre atmosphere that straddles alt.folk and country, but the really big selling point is Bet’s pure, intensely expressive country-folk voice, which has considerably more fullness and resonance than those of many singers tackling this kind of material. There are moments where the vocal quality, the phrasing, or the delivery will make me think of Kasey Chambers, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Lindi Ortega, Iris Dement or Dar Williams. Bet sounds nothing like any of them really, but the list gives you a sense of her calibre.
I believe Bet is back to cooking on a stove and using a toilet you can actually flush these days, but she still lives a pretty unique life, it seems, running a small blacksmith’s shop when she’s not working or making music. This album is an impressive collection from a relatively unknown artist, who only appears to have started recording in 2015. The plaintive, pristine vocals, atmospheric production values and original material make Bet an artist to keep a very close eye on. So hopefully she stays on-grid.
Frank Patrick – “Mercy”
I’m not going to lie. I always get a little anxious when I put on a new song about COVID-19 or first responders or frontline workers or whatever. Too much of it feels forced or trite or insincere. It’s as though people feel like they should be writing about this, but they haven’t really figured out what to say yet. And fair enough. We’re all still too busy processing it. Frank Patrick’s song is dedicated to frontline workers, so I was pleasantly surprised that it was none of the above. The moment Frank references John Prine’s “The Great Compromise,” you know he’s going deeper than most. The references to people getting rich off of the PPE shortage and the photos of the poor, the homeless, and the elderly make it clear that when Frank sings “tell me there’s still mercy here,” he’s talking about the big picture response to COVID, not just to the medical one. Couple that with Frank’s weathered vocals and Rebecca Campbell’s gorgeous harmonies and you’ve got a truly moving piece of music by any measure.
Shyanne – “I Still Break”
Shyanne’s debut single was steadily climbing the Indigenous Music Countdown earlier this year, and for good reason. This young Ottawa-based singer-songwriter has a lovely, mellifluous voice and shows tremendous promise as a songwriter. Backed by little more than piano, she delivers a performance filled with emotion and authenticity. Please spread the word on this girl!
Ben Spivak is the bassist for the band MAGIC! (“Marry that girl! Marry ya’ anyway”), and he used to tour with K-Os, so it’s probably no surprise that his new single is AWESOME. “Angle Fire” is pure roots pop without MAGIC!’s reggae leanings, but the songwriting is just as catchy, and it’s clear Ben had access to some a-list production help to get the absolute best out of the song. Put this on now. You’ll love it.
Dustbowl Daddies – Boom and Bust Economies of Love
The Dustbowl Daddies is a group of university professors, software engineers and people with other intellectual jobs who play music for fun and sound better than a lot of groups that do it as a full-time career. They released an EP two years ago as a preview to this album, and at the time, I described them as a cross between Mumford and Sons and the Pogues. Upon hearing their full, sophomore effort, I stand by that first impression. Boom and Bust Economies of Love – best album title ever – combines the lovely harmonies and acoustic string arrangements of old-time music with the unhinged chaos of Celtic rock bands. There’s also some buttery horn, particularly on the album’s one slow number, the nostalgic “You are Talking,” which allows the listener some time to get lost in emotion before starting to dance around the room again. The Daddies play music to make money for charity, which is a noble thing to do when you’ve got this much talent and earning power packed into five people. Keep up the good work, Daddies.
Genevieve Racette – “Les adieux”
I won’t lie. I wasn’t a huge fan of Genevieve when she first appeared on the scene. For a while there, the accolades directed her way were a bit of a mystery to me. But lately, she’s started to win me over, and this single and video is another reason why. At her best, Genevieve conveys so much emotion in her voice it provokes goosebumps. And this simple performance video featuring her at a white grand piano is a visual that matches the song’s melancholy tone. OK. I’m paying attention now.
Charlie Cares – Norlan’ Wind
Releasing a record of traditional folk songs accompanied by nothing but a ukulele is not the sort of thing you do if you’re trying to attract attention. In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a world that rewards newness and innovation, provided you don’t do anything so arty as to become inaccessible to the masses. But put on this record from Ann Arbor native-turned-Toronto artist Charlie Cares and you’ll find yourself strangely unwilling to turn it off. Charlie is a veteran folk singer who previously fronted Mulligan Stew and Heartwood – the latter with Anne Lindsay and Alex Sinclair. His plaintive, understated interpretation of trans-Atlantic standards, coupled with the tender lilt in his voice, packs enough of an emotional punch to pull a listener in from whatever busyness they were previously engrossed in. The repertoire ranges from the Irish standard “As I Roved Out” and the Scottish love song “Rigs of Rye” to the omnipresent Appalachian number “Shady Grove” – performed here like you’ve never heard it before. A note on Charlie’s Bandcamp page says the purpose of the album was to showcase Charlie’s vocals. If that’s the case then I must declare the project a success.
Georgia Lee Johnson – January Mind
Wow does Georgia Lee Johnson ever sound like a young Joni Mitchell. Yeah yeah. I know. That comparison has been made so many times before that it’s meaningless. But for real this time. Only she sounds like Joni if you took her elastic voice and superimposed it over an eclectic yet relatively minimalist soundscape that mixes acoustic instruments and electronic atmospheres and draws from folk, Celtic, pop, jazz, Americana and psychedelia. The sounds is trippy and ethereal. The Georgia Straight called Georgia Lee an artist to watch in 2018. Keep watching, folks.
May Davis – “One Way Ticket”
May Davis is based in Revelstoke, a town whose economy was for much of its life tied to the Canadian Pacific Railway. So, it’s probably no surprise that this single from her debut album is a train-themed love song with a gorgeous sepia-toned video to match. May has a wonderful, sultry, fractured blues voice, and the song is a nostalgic southern roots number that swings. I can’t wait to hear more from May.
Joe Nolan – Scrapper
It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Joe Nolan a cut above so many other singer-songwriters these days. That intimate, low key roots thing he does is a popular sound right now. But then, that’s just it, isn’t it? Good singer-songwriters are defined by the fact that they somehow grab you in ways that others don’t. You put on their record, and you don’t want to turn it off. They say something that rings uniquely authentic amidst the noise. They set a mood that connects with your mindset. And here in the midst of our second COVID winter, that intimate, tender but rough-hewn style of Joe’s connects with mine. Joe said he was aiming for something a little edgier on this album. Maybe so, but I wouldn’t say it’s a major departure from last year’s Drifters. And that’s a good thing.