Suzanne Jarvie. In The Clear. Wolfe Island Records

a3420829329_16It was back in 2015 when Suzanne Jarvie, a mother and lawyer, released an excellent debut album, Spiral Road. The album was a wonderful collection of songs which recalled the early releases of Emmylou Harris with Jarvie writing in the wake of her eldest son’s trauma after a serious fall. Despite having only dabbled in music up to that point the incident unleashed a song writing genie within her which led to the album and then on to successful concert dates, often in the company of fellow Wolfe Island denizens such as Hadley McCall Theakston and Hugh Christopher Brown who produced this album.

In The Clear, as the title might suggest, continues to find Jarvie writing in the aftermath of her son’s brain injury with several of the songs dealing with the aftermath although she avoids autobiography, preferring imagery and allusion. Thus, the gritty Point Blank with its glowering guitar and film noir hard-boiled lyrics, was written apparently in response to her son’s mood swings while Headless Rider finds her imagining her daughter’s sense of displacement as her sibling lies stricken. It’s a wonderful song which comes across almost like a Larry McMurtry story in song and verse, the hint at a familial connection really is only available to anyone with access to the PR notes but armed with this knowledge it makes sense. Aside from that it’s just a fabulous song which Jarvie delivers with a sublime and sweet country vibe as the band flow wonderfully; acoustic guitars, pedal steel, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and keyboards all swarming together, Jarvie’s very own Hot Band.

For someone who professes to be relatively new at the game, Jarvie manages time and again to hit all the buttons. Her songs are crammed with words to the extent that they all read like short stories. Take for example You Shall Not Pass, another gritty number with soulful Hammond organ and southern stained guitar licks which comes across like an Appalachian version of Lord Of The Rings  and then there’s the dust bowl dirt stained The Core. Featuring the legendary Mickey Raphael on harmonica, The Core might be one of the best songs we’ve heard this year, certainly a song to rival the best of Gretchen Peters and her ilk. Jarvie reaches similar heights throughout the album. Martyoshka and One It Finds are somewhat muted with a slight hint of Joni Mitchell while the title song is perhaps the closest we get here to the Emmylou comparisons with its superb Dobro from Burke Carroll. Perhaps the nearest to autobiography is the delicate All In Place which has a tiptoeing mandolin rippling away as Jarvie sings “I can see you’re worried it’s alright, I’m worried too and I’ve been up all night, watching the wipers cross the glass, all the minutes thunder pass.” The words will reverberate with anyone who has been in waiting for news of a loved one but aside from that the song’s arrangement is just so good and the playing so excellent. Slightly bluegrass, slightly LA canyon, slightly perfect.

Jarvie’s muse may have been born from tragedy but, unleashed, it thrives and In The Clear is a magnificent collection of songs, perfectly sung and perfectly played.

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Hadley McCall Thackston. Wolfe Island Records

hmt-coverSome albums just take root on first listening and so it is with Hadley McCall Thackston’s debut offering. From the first flutterings of the opening song, Butterflies, to the closing Last Mountain Waltz the album springs, fully formed, from Miss Thackston’s imaginative mind and the excellent arrangement and production skills of Hugh Christopher Brown. A Georgia native, Thackston began writing many of these songs on her front porch and one can imagine she could have delivered a fine album of unadorned simplicity given that she is a fine writer and excellent singer (and you can see her singing in such a manner on a YouTube video here). In a serendipitous manner however a friend of her mother’s saw one such video and alerted his producer chum who invited her to make an album with him. Thus it was that David Corley introduced her to Brown and pretty soon Thackston was in Canada’s Wolfe Island recording with the musical community who seem to infest the island.

It’s no disrespect to Thackston to say that the musical accompaniment and arrangements are half the delight here. Her songs are elevated throughout whether it be glorious country embellishments or poppier retro sounds which come across as if Amy Whitehouse and her producer, Mark Ronson, had decided to ditch the horn section and replace it with banjos, fiddle and accordion. This element is most pronounced on the driving beat of Ellipsis which stomps along with a sassy strut and finger popping chorus. They repeat the trick on Somehow where Thackston really channels Whitehouse vocally over a gypsy fiddle and on the dramatic No which has Thackston’s vocals multitracked and where a horn does parp up, both songs incidentally having lyrics which one could easily imagine Whitehouse singing.

A couple of songs retain a porch like simplicity within the arrangements. The opening Butterfly is a charming breeze of a song which recalls a more innocent time when the likes of Julie Felix were popular entertainers although lyrically it’s a timely call to arms for women and girls setting out on life to set their sights high. Last Mountain Waltz is more traditional with rippling mandolin and weeping strings although again there’s a powerful undertow of being shackled by society’s expectations. Elsewhere Redbird is a meditation on the power of belief wafted aloft by sonorous strings and hazy guitars and Devil or Angel finds Thackston in a vampish mood, an Eve tempting her Adam as she sings, “I’m a devil dressed in angel’s wings, man, did I have you fooled. If I did, I’m not sorry,” as the band slope along in Weimar cabaret style.

Two songs stand out. Change is a deceptively pretty country song replete with weeping pedal steel and rippling mandolin with Thackston speaking out on the #blacklivesmatter theme as she describes watching yet another news item on an unarmed black man shot dead by police, “Each death sewn into life’s tapestry, each stitch a blemish on our history that time cannot erase.” It’s a powerful song. Wallace’s Song (Sage Bush) is the opposite in that it’s an excellent uptempo country love song with a clever chorus referencing one of country music’s enduring duos. It’s a good enough song to get Ms. Thackston up onto that Grand Ole Opry stage.

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Hugh Christopher Brown. PACEM. Wolfe Island Records

pacem-cover-1-300x300Peace on earth or at least peace on Wolfe Island, the island musical community nestled between Canada and the USA close to the great lakes which Chris Brown calls home for much of the time. An acclaimed producer and multi instrumentalist, Brown has helmed several albums we’ve reviewed in the past including the mighty debuts from Suzanne Jarvie and David Corley. In addition he’s a dedicated believer in the rehabilitative powers of music having founded the Pros And Cons programme which runs music workshops for Canadian prisoners.  PACEM was recorded in his Wolfe Island studio set up, a former post office and it’s a beguiling mix of breezy songs couched in an almost Celtic soul vibe with dashes of Americana; fiddles, pedal steel and churchlike organ adding atmosphere to the album.

A sense of community permeates the album with Brown collaborating with various singers who take centre place on several songs. There’s a spiritual dimension also, the album opening with an arrangement of a prayer by the 16th century Saint Ignatius sung in Latin by Sherry Zbrovsky which sets the scene for Brown’s meditations which seem to be those of a man cleaving to life and music while seeking some divine sign that he’s on the right path. However the overall feel is redemptive and joyous despite some of the songs begging the eternal question.

Love, The World is an excellent acoustic mumble of a song with some mild sonic interludes from wayward keyboards recalling the freak folk movement of a few years back while Keeper Of the Flame is an upbeat piano based song which swells into an lovely slice of pedal steel laced Americana as Brown breathlessly expresses his admiration for a soul mate, spiritually and musically, the song dancing with the same bright and light footsteps as some of Van Morrison’s work.  Several of the songs recall Morrison’s heyday with Margaret a song poem replete with burbling bass lines and glorious harmonies while To The Lighthouse roams wonderfully through some Celtic landscapes with the fiddle adding a sense of mystery.

The Yield is a brief keyboard instrumental which is rich in atmosphere with a touch of Debussy about it and it segues into the powerful and plaintive The Wave, a song about those tossed across the oceans seeking refuge, sung with great feeling by Kate Fenner. Brown gives space to another powerful voice on Moved By Hands To Shelter as David Corley’s gravelly vocals contrast with Brown’s lighter voice in a song which is delivered as if plucked from the King James Bible.  There’s a similar biblical feel to the magnificently structured The Great Unknowing which kicks off sounding like Will Oldham in a mischievousness mood with a wonderfully wooden timbre before ascending into an almost Brian Wilson like middle eight and then fizzing out resplendently. Brown closes the album with a song which harks back to those folk singers who had a metaphysical bent back in the sixties on Broken. Here he roams the highways and byways of love with a cobblestone back street romanticism lit by candlelight.

An album best heard in the late hours, preferably with a broken heart or a sense of ennui, PACEM is an excellent collection of songs on which to ponder.

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Suzanne Jarvie

S Jarvie live pic
Spiral Road, the impressive debut album from Canadian Suzanne Jarvie has been universally lauded since its release in April. Compared by many to Emmylou Harris Jarvie delivers sweet country rock, lilting ballads and lowering country funk over the course of the disc’s 10 songs. The heady mix of Hammond organ, pedal steel and crunchy guitars on Never Gonna Stop is just short of monumental while Tears Of Love with its keening melancholy buoyed up by a joyful country arrangement would be right at home on Emmylou’s Pieces Of The Sky album, indeed it sounds as if it were written by a metaphysical Dolly Parton.
Jarvie, whose day job is as a criminal defence attorney, began to write these songs in the aftermath of a family tragedy, her son in a coma after a head injury. His road to recovery unlocked a creativity in Jarvie. While she had always dabbled in music she found herself “in a feverish fit of writing” until her songs were heard by producer Hugh Christopher Brown who eventually helmed the album setting Jarvie’s songs in crystalline and sparkling arrangements. The result is a triumph, a testament to the human spirit, uplifting, sad yet joyous with lyrics that recall the cosmic mysticism of Mike Nesmith and Gene Clark.
Ms. Jarvie is currently in the UK preparing for her first European appearances, several dates in the Netherlands throughout May. Prior to this she’s taping a session for Barry Everett’s House Of Mercy radio show and on Thursday 7th May has a free show (with Lynne Hanson) in West Hampstead, London, laid on by Locally Sourced, details  here. Just arrived in London and battling jet lag Suzanne was kind enough to answer a few questions from Blabber’n’Smoke.

Spiral Road has been unanimously praised in review after review here in the UK and the continent. Do you read the reviews and if so did you recognize yourself in them?
Yes and no. Sometimes it’s like reading about a stranger who is living the dream I wanted but could never quite reach. I do ask myself, who is the person who wrote those songs. Are they mine? Other times I recognize the artist in myself that was silent all these years, (thanks Tori Amos) which feels like a homecoming. Especially given my years working and developing as a litigator. There’s an element of poetry in advocacy, and I see now how that’s the well I was always drawing from. The realization of an artistic longing in a way that has integrity and honesty. Also, my son’s accident, which was the catalyst for these songs, was almost 4 years ago, so that experience is somewhat misted over, at least in terms of emotional immediacy. Sometimes because of that I feel detached from the reviews, which I am incredibly grateful for. They reflect so much on the amazingly collaborative aspect of the work and I am deeply honored by the response.
This is your first album, written as you say after your son’s accident. Prior to that were you playing music, singing anywhere or writing songs? It seems astonishing that an album as assured as this wasn’t in gestation for some time.
I have been playing and singing for years, but until this record, not creatively. When I was much younger I played the role of musical mimic. Even when I tried to write, which was almost never, it was either something contrived or hopelessly mawkish and 16 year old school girl diary-ish. While I had a deep longing to be more and do more creatively, I don’t think I even understood what that meant. I did not know then that creativity does not come from the mind per se. Similar to the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ problem. My son’s accident turned off my mind completely for a while and suddenly there was tremendous room. When the mind is quiet – a sudden awareness that something else is present. So I think the unformed essence of the record had been gestating for ages, but the trauma of the accident opened the door and fertilized the material. Getting a bit reproductive here.
Hugh Christopher Brown says that a friend of his told him about you, he heard you and was somewhat blown away which led to him producing the album. How much of a role did he have in the musicians who play with you, did you know some of them or did Chris open up his phonebook and call in some folk?
Chris’ role cannot be overstated. I had a couple of good friends who I wanted to play on the record, but other than that I had no one. No band and songs which had stripped down arrangements. I had general ideas about sonics but no specifics on how to achieve them. Chris has a pretty orchestral vision and a wide circle of wonderfully talented musician friends – so we built the record in layers, largely based on his various waves of inspiration regarding who to call on (like the Homes Bros., the Abrams Bros., Mickey Raphael, Tony Scherr etc).
While a couple of the songs (2458, Angel Of Light and Wait For Me in particular) can be seen to be about your children’s’ illnesses the remainder of the songs are highly allusive with you singing about stars, the universe, molecules and such. There are references to Navajo tradition and Enola Gay tackles nuclear destruction with powerful imagery without descending into an anti bomb diatribe. Having had some time to listen again to the album and study the words I’m wondering what authors or poets (or songwriters) might have been an influence here.
My influences are elusive. Some days I think Dark Side of the Moon, some days Gillian Welch, other days Joni Mitchell, or Tolkien or Jung. Some days I know it is meditating on death (I don’t mean that morbidly). It’s like trying to identify a spice in a dish made by someone else. I know it’s “my” imagination, but it doesn’t feel like that when it’s doing its thing. I had a transcendent experience because of my son’s accident. Something about that finally allowed me to draw on my influences without being a mimic, but also without being able to definitively identify them either. Maybe that’s the whole point!
I see that in the liner notes you credit Dylan Thomas, J.K. Rowling, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas for inspiration. Care to elaborate on this?
My imagination is a pretty thick soup of science fiction, Victorian literature, escapist fantasy, children’s classics and random poets whose work hit me hard, like Dylan Thomas and Phillip Larkin. I like the high brow low brow mix up too. All four of my kids have a similar penchant, and so together we have spent hundreds of hours reading and watching the Harry Potter stories, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars etc. I got pretty wrapped up in the recurring metaphors and archetypes. I wonder at the endless capacity for the human imagination to reinvent themes relating to corruption and redemption. I hate clichés, but the question of hope’s endurance and resilience is mysterious and inspiring. When everything is getting pulverized it appears and guides, like the deluminator orb! How is that? Also, passivity versus the emotionally active life. The universe really does want you to go tearing down the street after your dreams. When you do, it will give you tail wind. I think Never Gonna Stop and Enola Gay contain those themes. Spiral Road for example, is partly inspired by my experiences with the Navajo and partly by the Tales of Beadle the Bard, J.K. Rowling’s story within the story. As for Dylan Thomas, it’s something about Fern Hill. I read that poem for the first time at age 15 and found it emotionally devastating. It’s never left me. Ultimately what you know about mortality in the abstract is irrelevant. Fern Hill gave me that epiphany on mortality, through art. I think about that all the time, about the existential power and fundamental role of art and artists.
You’re playing a few dates in the UK and The Netherlands in May. Is this your first time in Europe? Will you be playing solo or with a band?
This is my first time in Europe and I am beyond thrilled. Chris Brown is touring with me, so we will perform the tunes as a duo. In addition to his awesome keyboard stylings he gets to work his falsetto on the harmonies!

So, if you’re in West Hampstead tomorrow night you know where to go. In the meantime there’s the album to enjoy, guaranteed to astonish and delight.