For fans of: ARMS, Tom Waits, Alan Lomax recordings
Somewhere in the back woods of the vast Ontario landscape - and you needn't go all that far from any urban center to get there - there are people who live in direct communion with the humbling voice of nature provided by the landscape, whose experiences aren't so different from the kind of people you might find in the back woods of Alabama or Kentucky. Is it such a surprise, then, that the titular Bruce Peninsula that inspired the band's name is also a place of profound natural beauty that provides meditative opportunities in keeping with the soulful, sonorous gospel chants that define this album? That Canada and nevermind Ontario has never been a place of black chain gangs does nothing to diminish the sincerity and moving power of their full length debut. For some people, it might actually enhance the experience, and more power to them. For me, the album exists outside cultural barriers like that. It is gorgeous and moving, and that is enough for me.
Right from the very beginning, the album opener "Inside/Outside" starts off with a gentle swell of human voice and metallophone, respectively by Neil Haverty and a choir consisting of Austra's Katie Stelmanis, Ohbijou's Casey Selmanis, The Youngest's Amy Learmonth, Timber Timbre's Taylor Kirk, Isla Craig and Christienne Chesney, and gives way to the hoarse crooning of guitarist Matt Cully, before a crescendo of a capella vocal power gives way to a spritely drum beat by drummer Steve McKay. "Steamroller" comes next, and begins with a vaguely Afrobeat chant accompanied with a dreamlike guitar riff descending and ascending chromatically, first in the verses, then in the chorus, and broken up by call-and-response pauses in the vocal patterns. There is an orchestral tuneup cacophony that leads into the next song, "2nd 4th World War" as a means of introducing the upbeat bluegrass rhythm, restrained all the while by the mournful voices of Cully and co. regaling the trials of millmen blackened by coal. If the gospel theme hasn't been driven home yet, then the next song "Satisfied" leaves no room for doubt, consisting of nothing but vocal responses to the choir chanting the lyric "satisfied" over and over and over a capella, and if the gospel theme still isn't working for you, you'll probably be hooked when you hear the distant banshee wailing that begins "Shutters" thereafter. This really is the standout track of the album, with the meandering Hendrix-like riffing mutedly leading the song down to the bridge and back up to the final movement, as voice, guitar and violin weave melodies constantly. If this song hasn't caught on with you, then there probably isn't much use in finishing the album. This is not a "fun" album, as such, although that is far from saying that it is unenjoyable - while you may not have much success spinning it at the ordinary party setting, it will strike a chord when you're in the right mood to hear it.
"Crabapples" is the first song that doesn't begin with any obvious vocal accompaniment, bringing to prominence the other prominent feature of Bruce Peninsula's music; percussion. The vocals aren't absent for long, however, and the traditional roots drumming proves no less rhythmic than the vocals, which should have you chanting against your will by this point. And what album referencing bluegrass in the indie-rock vein these days is complete without banjo accompaniment? That's how "Shanty Song" begins, guided by a steady native beat and mounting vocal harmonies before guest artist Muskox brings the song to a hushed standstill and resumes with more metallophone presence. It's really the simple basslines of Andrew Barker, however, that create the melodic counterpoint when the verses conclude that complete the song, the spine-tingling range of tone that sets the song apart. "Drinking All Day" comes next, more of a blues number, beginning with a kind of forlorn rustling of the wind that creates a sense of pensive reflectiveness as the tempo comes to the slowest it has ever been on the album and the banjo and guitar shudder finally to a halt to the dour sound of pipes. "Northbound/Southbound" rounds out the album by bringing us back to Cully's hoarse rasping and the metallophone accompanying each other into the final phrase of the choir, ebbing and fading into the crackle of the vinyl recording standard typically associated with the gospel recordings of Alan Lomax, so indisputably evident throughout the entire album.
Significant portions of this album have been lifted wholesale from existing gospel recordings, but with tweaks and alterations that truly distinguish themselves as the original work of completely different artists operating as part of a wholly other tradition. Coming from relatively unafflicted Canadian young adults, the mournful tone of the album never appears forced or uninformed; if the field hollers and gospel chants that inspired it were the work of people who endured far worse than you or I, then this album serves as a statement of the universality of their hardship and of the reverie inspired by solutide and nature, not cheap plagiarism. It's hard to imagine any specific group of people where this album works well in, although you might be able to decide that for yourself; what I can assure is that it can compliment a reflective state of mind well and soothe restless nerves in unrestful times.
PS: If you aren't near any of Bruce Peninsula's tour dates listed on their website, their music features heavily in the movie "Small Town Murder Songs", a Canadian TIFF selection and Peter Stormare's first leading role in an English-language film.
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