If you’re looking for someone to write you a fantastic song about a horse, then look to Matt Patershuk. The Canadian singer/songwriter seems to have a weird predilection for songs about our equine buddies as witnessed on past albums and An Honest Effort adds another two to the list. Horses however are but one element in his bag as this album allows him to deliver a fantastic set of wonderfully warm and laid back songs which range in subject from downtrodden women, the aimless flight of a bullet, Shane McGowan’s dentures and the laws of thermodynamics.
As on its predecessor, If Wishes Were Horses (see, we told you so), Patershuk’s songs here are ably recorded by Steve Dawson who produces and plays guitar and pedal steel while Fats Kaplin offers sublime banjo, fiddle, ukulele and harmonica. Gary Craig and Jeremy Holmes are the subtlest of rhythm sections and Keri Latimer adds harmonies to Patershuk’s handsome voice on several selections. The overall feel of the album is somewhat restrained, the songs allowed to find their own level which, in the main, is immensely relaxed, an album to be savoured late at night, an unwinding of sorts as Patershuk beguiles you with his (sometimes tall) tales.
We’ll kick off with those horsey songs. Jupiter The Flying Horse is a Jerry Jeff Walker like number which incorporates the whimsical style of The Handsome Family. It’s a grand song but it’s beaten to the post by the extraordinary tale of Clever Hans, a true story about an early 20th Century attraction, a horse who could calculate, add and subtract and whatnot. It was, of course, a con, but Patershuk allows the colt some dignity as he tells the tale with Dawson adding sly guitar much in the manner of Ry Cooder on an early Randy Newman song. Staying within a realm of weird humour, Patershuk postulates that Shane MacGowan’s new dentures can pick up radio signals and, in a fine front porch manner, kind of like Steven Hawking hawking tobacco and playing banjo as he lectures to a bunch of locals, on The 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics, Patershuk explains that the universe tends to disorder.
Aside from the whimsy, a brace of songs are more down to earth and occasionally quite dark. The opening track, Johanna, a song dipped in molasses, has the heroine casting off her shackles to embrace a new life. Trepidatious to be sure but full of hope. Sunny, another song about a woman trapped, is more vague. She’s one of those abused women, the sort who feature in Willy Vlautin’s song stories, and Patershuck brings her to life with brushstrokes as evocative as those employed by The Delines. On the other side of the coin, Afraid To Speak Her Name is a shimmering joy with Dawson excelling on guitar and Weissenborn guitar as Patershuk paints a picture of an almost unattainable romantic memory.
Rounding out the album, Turn The Radio Up has a Tupelo Honey Van Morrison like lilt to it while 1.3 Miles is a return to front porch picking as Patershuk takes the listener on a bullet’s trajectory. An odd subject to be sure but, like Alice’s rabbit hole, a doorway into a wonderful series of vignettes. Stay With Me is a juicy slice of laid back country rock with rippling mandolin, fatback guitar and Kaplin’s harmonica surrounding Patershuk’s tender and nostalgic reverie with Latimer’s harmonies quite glorious. Finally, Patershuk pays tribute to his grandmother, a Liverpudlian activist, on the spare, banjo speckled Upright. Arrested aged 73 campaigning against the bomb and a fan of Fats Waller, she lives again on this affectionate song. It’s a magnificent end to what is a magnificent album.