The funereal horns that kick off To Build a Fire serve as a signal of intent, an early warning that this album is going to be more inventive and expansive than Cam Penner’s previous four offerings. Penner’s trademark sound has up until now been a kind of frazzled, backwoods country-folk with a tough edge, but this opening is more reminiscent of what early Calexico might have sounded like if they had traded in their sombreros for trapper’s hats. And then, two-thirds of the way through first track Mighty Damn Animator (So Long, Farewell), the horns die away to be replaced by an insistent piano and drum coda. It’s a kind of departure within a departure, an intriguing way to start an album, a brave move.
Elsewhere country-rock and Americana tropes are recycled in refreshing ways. This Could Be Your Anthem is a tender micro-suite, while the repeated lyrics of Gasoline Summers have a cumulative effect, like a bank of cloud building before a summer storm.
Penner has been compared to fellow Canadian Neil Young, and the guitar that underpins the title track – a raw, stomping invocation – brings to mind Young at his grungy, burned-out best. Similarly, Rivers Forgotten evokes Young’s softer moments, although Penner’s voice is an altogether gruffer instrument than that of his compatriot. There is fragility, particularly on the beautiful closer Whiskey Lips, but it is a hard-won fragility, tempered by muscularity.
But Penner’s influences are more wide-ranging than it may at first seem. On No Consequence he cranks up the riffage, but the result is – he may not thank me for saying this – more Lynyrd Skynyrd than Crazy Horse. Memphis, despite its For The Turnstiles-esque banjo backdrop, sounds almost like Beck.
To Build a Fire, for all its departures and stylistic about-turns, is at its heart a good old-fashioned country rock album. It manages to avoid the clichés of the genre with some excellent song writing, an honest, wide-eyed worldview and some very genuine emotional clout.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Tracks (free download)
To Build a Fire is released April 1st 2013
Download it here