Fri, Mar 15, 2013.
I'm off to my favourite Friday night activity of late, a house concert. These have become popular everywhere now, and all that's holding them back is a shortage of people to host them. It takes a lot of commitment, as you have to open your house to a large group, help sell tickets, get the word out, work with the artists over arrangements, plan the food, ask for help with pot luck dishes, and then be somebody who likes small talk and hosting musicians, often overnight at your place. But there's a growing audience for them, us folks who don't want to stand around in bars to see artists, especially singer-songwriters, who come across better in the relaxed atmosphere of home better than the noisy, talky club scene.
Tonight, I'll be checking out two artists. One I already know, having been introduced to her at the same house concert series last year, and getting to review her new album recently. Gabrielle Papillon splits her time between Nova Scotia and Montreal, and was a recent ECMA nominee in folk for her Little Bug album. I'll include the original Little Bug review below, and as you read it, you'll know I'm a fan.
Also on the bill is a new artist to me, but someone well-established in the west. Christa Couture is a prairie and west coast award-winning artist with a trio of albums behind her, the latest from late last year, The Living Record. She is an intriguing performer, a singer-songwriter who moves in and out of both folk and alternative pop, not dissimilar to Jenn Grant. She can sound old-fashioned, as on the new Paper Anniversary, almost 19th century in her high and fluttery vocals, but then come at you with sweet and quirky pop, thoroughly modern, on Parasite. Her quirky singing style is always completely tuneful, yet fragile, as if it could shatter if the emotions became too intense.
There are sad moments to the lyrics, which refer to some tough years for the singer, including a cancer battle, and the death of an infant son. But these are tackled with a great inner strength, as if the songs themselves are part of the healing, the music uplifting and necessary. Memories and events, most of them pleasent, form other numbers, and the songs can move from delicate to edgy, complete with scratchy electric guitar. At the heart of them though, are songs that will sit well in the house concert setting of acoustic guitar and voice.
And here's what I first said about Gabrielle Papillon's Little Bug last year:
Nova Scotia's Papillon gets her first big-time production, courtesy of Daniel Ledwell (Jenn Grant, In-Flight Safety), and wow, what a big leap. Fans of her previous album will recognize a couple of songs, and there's a huge difference with the sonics and studio craft. But you can't just do this with anyone, and Papillon is one of the most interesting writers and singers to come along of late.
She's a wordsmith alright, nothing too verbose, but able to string unexpected words and phrases, and look at a scene from a completely different view than the norm. Lead track Go Into The Night features a loved one leaving, but only for a short time, a planned trip from which they will return. There are nautical images, and quite simply, words you just don't hear in most people's songs: "get off your perch", and "burrow down". I'm already captured and captivated, and we've just started our little 45-minute journey.
Ledwell lets her add a lot more colours to what are mostly calm and gentle folk songs. The difference in Turn Left, one of the re-recorded numbers, isn't in volume, but in the way new instruments, programmed sounds and even claps get added. Strings swirl around the vocals, and Jenn Grant swirls around Papillon in a close vocal dance. It's the most complex production on the album, but it's all in the subtlety. It's a lesson on how to build acoustic guitar songs into sounds that are new and exciting.
Another great line, from the title cut: "I haven't been this way for many years/I hold you to no promise, no arrears." Just pointing that one out. And where does such a charming image come from? Describing herself as a little bug, a little tug, "pulling at your heart strings". Whether it's a character, or the way she sees herself, again, this is a new metaphor to my ears, at least in your basic popular song.
There are several highlights, including a beautiful a capella song in French, Papillon's first on disc, with sweet harmonies and small hand claps the only add-ons. Moonless Night grabs a banjo and a pony-riding beat, and makes out like a Western tale, her Ghost Riders In The Sky for lovers. The lone cover is a quite different version of In The Pines, all ancient, off-kilter harmonies, and a stomp-clap beat added to give it the proper chain gang rhythm. Finally, there's a wonderful piece of whimsy to end the disc, I Am Sold. It's the fastest tune here, a mix of Andrews Sisters and that Western thing again, happy as all get out, with bells and kazoo sounds and a clip-clop beat. Our little trip with a little bug ends with a big smile.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).