For his fourth release, inspired by Ian Tyson’s Cowboyography project, Barber returned to his native Winnipeg to assemble a loose concept album (recorded in an old silo) about the Canadian prairies where he spent his childhood.
Although Big Smoke clearly echoes his feelings of having been away so long in the city and the bluesy, organ backed All That It Takes recalls a journey to the Yukon, it’s not autobiographical as such; however, memories undoubtedly flow into his affecting portraits of drug-running truckers and beleaguered farmers (one song even includes radio reports of grain prices), of those who can’t afford to stay and, on It’s Harder Than You Think’s shrugged shuffle, the chains that hold them back.
Couched in a classic country style that’ll conjure an array of comparisons, the opening Living With A Long Way To Go, where a cattle-rancher has to seek work in the oil fields to keep the family farm going under, provides the most obvious, sounding uncannily as it does like The Eagles’ Take It Easy. Indeed, the tale of a young man trying to break away, Farewell, God Bless You wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Desperado while Walking In A Straight Line would slot seamlessly into On the Border.
Barber also makes no bones about the influence of John Prine on his work, evident here on the waltzing Peter and Jenny Lee’s playful snapshot of small town romance and, with sterling support from pedal steel player (and co-producer) William J. Western, the country rolling title track where images of sparrows and black crows lace an inveterate womaniser’s tale of his latest seduction.
The slightly yee-haw goofy good time Country Girl is a bit of a sore-thumb, but otherwise it flows from one stand-out to another, Arianna’s loping tale of hardship and hope in a company town in economic downturn with its yearning steel and traces of Townes and the ice-hockey imagery (cold world, warm heart) of Tell Me Where To Start particular highlights.
I confess, I’d not come across Barber before this release, but, twangy, aching, honest and just the right amount of grit, I’m definitely making him my Prairie home companion.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on True North, out now