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Disc of the week: Rebooting Canada's folk songbook

Mathias Kom and Laura Barrett.

People who make a study of folk music have tended to think of it as something out there that needs to be brought in here. The idea was to find a microphone or suitcase, go out and get the songs, and bring them in here where their traits can be properly measured. Thus we got a great harvest of manuscript researches and field recordings by the likes of Francis James Child and the Lomaxes in the Unites States, and Marius Barbeau and Edith Fulton Fowke in Canada.

These worthies had their own ideas of what folk music was, or at least what kind was worth studying. Child ignored everything except songs that he could trace back to British balladry, and the Lomaxes didn't want to know about Lead Belly's enthusiasm for cowboy songs.

Fast-forward several decades, and the anonymous folk music studied by Barbeau and Fowke has receded behind a vast quantity of recently authored, folk-like music. Grab a banjo, tune your mind to whatever you think you know about the Dirty Thirties, and you too can write a hard-bitten song about riding the freights to the sheer horizon of busted hopes. If your name is Bruce, you might even get to sing it in a football stadium.

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Henry Adam Svec probably won't be touring stadiums this year, unless he's a sports fan; but Svec, who lives in London, Ont., knows how to go out there and get the songs. Like his forebears in the folk-wrangling trade, he has made fresh recordings by rivers and in living rooms, with and without babies cooing in the background.

The 22 titles he collected for Folk Songs of Canada Now would have been very familiar to Fowke, because they are the same ones she captured in the middle of the last century. The words and music, however, are new, written by the performing musicians, who include Laura Barrett, Mathias Kom (of the Burning Hell), Andrew Penner (of Sunparlour Players) and Wax Mannequin.

Jenny Omnichord's electronic version of When the Ice Worms Nest Again has an entirely different tune and a much more vermicular subject than the jaunty song about Arctic contentment recorded ages ago by Wilf Carter. The heroine of Svec's and Tara Beagan's Little Indian Maid eliminates a not-so-great white hunter with a bullet flung from her teeth – unlike Fowke's pious maid, who prays to Jesus "to bless the white man for evermore." Kom tracks Nellie Coming Home from the Wake from inside his own coffin, and Andy Magoffin's Maiden includes a reference to a broken iPod. The music of this last song sounds like a loose parody of sunlit pop from the seventies – but before you blow the whistle on that, remember that even Led Zeppelin had its folkie moments back then.

Geoff Berner's Come All Ye Bold Canadians calls on the stout-hearted to resist the "perfidious rebels" who raided Canada in 1812, while deftly portraying our warriors as the stooges of Empire. Berner slips in a scrap of music from Yankee Doodle, which sounds better here than in some old versions of Poor Little Girls of Ontario, which swiped the American tune wholesale. Chris Eaton's take on that title sounds like a stripped-down blues holler, till a baby crawls in and takes over the vocals. Barrett's lavishly autoharped Save Your Money While You're Young wistfully updates a loggers' song about the true cost of high times, in an idiom suited to modern urban bohemians like herself. As Svec almost says in his deadpan notes for this project, the only folk here is us folk.

Folk Songs of Canada Now



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Terra Lightfoot

  • Terra Lightfoot
  • Sonic Unyon
  • 3 stars

With her thoughtful, rustic, indie folk material, Terra Lightfoot, no relation to Gordon, makes an earthy debut. The Hamilton singer-songwriter's voice is rich, malleable and melancholic; her material is grey-coloured, a shade of November. Sleep Away the Winter, a swelling waltz about social hibernation, is the album's biggest track. Head, Tails, Tails is sparser and sweeter. The rest of the material is fit for sweaters and cellos, providing those in a mood some measure of comfort. Brad Wheeler

Terra Lightfoot plays Thunder Bay, Ont., Oct. 15; Wawa, Oct. 16; North Bay, Oct. 17; Hamilton, Oct. 27; Toronto, Oct. 30; Wakefield, Que., Nov. 5; Laval, Nov. 6.


Ashes & Fire

  • Ryan Adams
  • Pax Am/Capital
  • Three and a half stars

"Nobody has to cry," Ryan Adams croons, possibly to himself, on the sparse, steel-guitar-accented Come Home, "to make it seem real." It's a revelation from a drama-struck singer-songwriter newly content, married now to the actress Mandy Moore, who also sings occasionally on a lightly textured album of lingering melodies and sweet emotion. The gifted Adams, whose career has been marked by wild prolificacy and inconsistency, here presents some of his best-ever work: His high tenor on Dirty Rain recalls Loudon Wainwright III; Rocks aches beautifully. Keyboardist Benmont Tench supplies colours deftly on gentle material – an affecting outpouring from a man who no longer necessarily equates love with hell. B.W.

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Alfred Schnittke: String Quartets

  • Quatuor Molinari
  • Atma Classique
  • 4 stars

There are several reasons why this recording of Alfred Schnittke's four string quartets measures up so well against its few but prestigious competitors (the Arditti, Alban Berg and Kronos quartets), but it has a lot to do with the way the Quatuor Molinari has normalized expressive material that might easily have been hyperbolized. The ensemble avoids insistent emotionalizing (affect is exposed within the material, but extremes of affect are not imposed upon it), and one appreciates a general sense of spaciousness. The blend is marvellous, something both players and the sound engineers can take credit for, and whether the textures are dense, abrasive or spare, we relish the sound world – even as we work at comprehending what's happening within it. These interpretations don't just challenge us; they welcome us, too. Elissa Poole


Spectacle: Live!

  • Peripheral Vision
  • Step 3
  • 4 stars

It's always great to hear a jazz group live up to the promise of its debut, and Spectacle does that in spades. Although the writing is colourful and evocative, and the improvisations so tuneful they sound like compositions, what really sets this Toronto quartet apart in its second album is the confidence of the playing, which exhibits the sort of semi-telepathic communication you'd expect from musicians who had been together for a decade, not just a year or so. At its best, Peripheral Vision recalls the cerebral groove and melodic lyricism of John Abercrombie's recent bands, and its best is mostly what Spectacle: Live! delivers. J.D. Considine

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