Best tunes of 2012: #24 John K. Samson “Heart of the continent”

<< #25    |    #23 >>

With apologies to my youngest brother Mike*, I didn’t really get into and start appreciating the songwriting of John K. Samson until somewhere between the time of The Weakerthans’ last record and when they went on the extended hiatus that continues to this day.

It’s not like I didn’t have my chances. I actually saw them live twice. The first time was in 2001, when I hadn’t yet heard of them at all. They were the opening act on a card supporting Billy Bragg and The Lowest of the Low in Toronto, the latter of whom I recall Samson claiming were a huge influence on his own songwriting. The second time I saw them was in 2008 and they played in the afternoon on the second day of Toronto Island’s Virgin Fest. I was much better prepared this time, having brushed up on pretty much all of their records, and even finding a few favourite tunes on these. Yet still, though I enjoyed their set quite a bit, I wasn’t quite as into it as was my friend Mark, though truth be told, his enjoyment might have been enhanced by the bit of cannabis he had partaken in just beforehand.

What really did it for me was a couple years after that second show when I happened to be in Winnipeg around the time of their renowned Folk Festival. One of the sets that I managed to catch there was an afternoon songwriting workshop that included members of Jon And Roy, Works Progress Administration, and Swell Season and which was led by a genial fellow that I thought looked familiar right from the beginning. It turned out that it was local legend and the unofficial poet laureate of Winnipeg, John K. Samson, and of course, the theme that afternoon was on writing about home.

This is something Samson does often. His hometown of Winnipeg and other bits of Canadiana often entered the conversational tone of the lyrics of The Weakerthans’ songs. And there is no good reason why he would change his thinking when he released his debut solo album, “Provincial”, in 2012, which is the host of today’s song, “Heart of the continent”. Indeed, the title of today’s song is Winnipeg’s slogan, which is why many consider it like a sequel of sorts to The Weakerthans’ “One great city”, which was, of course, Winnipeg’s old slogan.

“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says welcome to
(Bienvenue à)
But no sign to show you when you go away“

It’s a lovely tune. Samson’s lyrics take the front seat, his now recognizable voice all soft and wistful, while his fingers brush and pluck away at the strings of an acoustic guitar. It’s like he’s busking on his favourite street corner (perhaps on Memorial), complete with his foot stomping on the kick pedal drum. Little by little, the people passing to and fro join him in the chorus, perhaps there’s another guitar and snare that make their way out from the abandoned building in front of which Samson sings, his hat still empty in front of him.

Yep. With this tune and this album, I became a full fledged Samson fan.

*My youngest brother Mike is a pretty big Weakerthans fan and was behind “One great tribute”, a tribute album to the band that was released last year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2012: #25 Sea Wolf “Priscilla”

<< #26    |    #24 >>

Sea Wolf is an Los Angeles-based indie rock act that is mainly the vehicle for the songwriting of Alex Brown Church. He started the project in 2003 when the songs he was working on while part of the band Irving didn’t fit their sound. In 2012, he released “Old world romance”, the third full-length album to be produced using the Sea Wolf name, and this following on the heels of two previous, relatively successful albums: 2007’s “Leaves on the river” and 2009’s “White water, white bloom”.

As I mentioned above, Sea Wolf is mainly Church’s project and yet “Old world romance” is the first of his albums that was completed without the help of enlisted musicians, recorded all by himself. But instead of feeling like a basement (or living room) DIY project, the album has a crisper and cleaner sounding production than its predecessors and because he used a drum machine rather than a live timekeeper, some of the organic sound has been dispensed with, in favour of a more mechanical effect. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it was this inner struggle that reverberates throughout the album between the traditional, folk stylings and the modern and electronic sounds that caught my attention in the first place. It’s almost a reflection of the man versus nature themes that are hinted at on the album’s cover and are prevalent in the naturalistic novels of Jack London . Yes, in case you Jack London fans were wondering, the band’s name, Sea Wolf, was taken from the novel of the same name.

“Priscilla” is my favourite track on the album. When I first listened to it, it drummed up memories of listening to songs like “Sonnet” and “This time” of The Verve’s “Urban hymns” for the first time. Not necessarily the vocal work, though Church does sound a bit a cross between Richard Ashcroft and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, but there is an atmospheric feel to it, naturalistic, much like The Verve’s dense ballads, it makes for heady chill out music. Starting off with reverb guitars that sound like a distress call or echoing birds calling over the bay, then, the drum machine beats crash in like waves and acoustic guitar strumming layers in with synth string washes, all haunting and chilling cold ocean breeze. Watch out. There’s a storm brewing here. The waves are picking up and smashing and pounding the stony shore. Interesting, then, that it’s a song about a relationship on the rocks.

“So Priscilla, this is important
Time to tell us this is
No goodbyes and no time for mourning
Now we’ll see what this love is for.”

Sigh.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

Vinyl love: The National “High violet”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: The National
Album Title: High violet
Year released: 2010
Details: Limited edition, double heavyweight vinyl, violet, gatefold

The skinny: A few weeks ago, “High Violet”, the fifth album by American indie rock band, The National, turned ten years old. To celebrate, their label, 4AD, released an expanded edition anniversary edition of the album, the vinyl version including an additional LP of bonus material and all three discs pressed in a lovely, white and purple marbling. I didn’t pre-order it because I’m not at the point (yet) of buying multiple versions of the same album for my vinyl collection and besides, I’m pretty happy with the limited edition, original pressing on heavyweight, violet vinyl that I found a bunch of years ago. You may debate “High violet” that is not their best work but it built on the exposure gained by The National’s previous record, “Boxer”, and well, I think it’s some pretty fine music (two of the tracks, including the one below, appeared on my Best tunes of 2010 list). The National’s sombre and atmospheric sound is just so great on vinyl and is on full display here. In fact, I remember the first time I listened to this record after purchasing it and, I think my friend Mark will agree with me here, I thought it sounded very different from the version on CD.

Standout track: “Conversation 16”