Based in Toronto and a regular collaborator with fellow Canadiana artist Carolyn Mark, Neville Quinlan released his first NQ Arbuckle album, Hanging The Battle-Scarred Pinata, back in 2002 and, since then, has carved a solid reputation on his native soil, including two Juno album of the year nominations. As of yet, while building a decent fanbase, NQ Arbuckle haven’t really made substantial headway beyond Canada’s borders and, to be honest, I don’t think The Future Happens Anyway, Quinlan’s fifth, is going to radically change things.
Not that it’s in any way a bad album, far from it, and Quinlan’s throaty dust cracked voice still makes you want to reach for the nearest cool beer as he continues to explore the darker backroads of relationships on songs that touch on life, death and all in-between.
The problem is that it’s definitely an album of two halves, with all the rockier, punchier material loaded upfront and tracks 8-13 shifting into more reflective, ballad mode. Both have their strengths, but the sudden division between the two makes for a slightly disorienting mood swing.
Whatever, a slow drum beat kicks things off with Back To Earth, a track that conjures the best of The Hold Steady as Quinlan’s gravelly voice intones a tale of a tale of separation that features the inspired line “ I never thought that I’d meet you ‘til I was cooking you breakfast”.
It is, guessingly, a song born of life on the road, something that also informs the jauntily jubilant (at one point you can hear him almost laugh) Red Wine with its bluegrass banjo tinge, barrel-house piano and a reference to downing pints in a bar in St John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the chugging chorus-friendly Life Boat (a track dedicated to Mark preceded by a church piano snatch of Eternal Father, Strong to Save aka For Those In Peril On The Sea) where he sings about “picking up the band from broken homes, like picking up the drinks from backyard parties,” and “writing postcards on the wheel”.
Conjuring thoughts of Gaslight Anthem, the guitar-ringing Hospitals pulls no punches about a life on the edge in its opening line, “I bet you’re tired of waking up in hospitals”, to which he adds “I bet you’re happy that you’re still here”, following through with the assurance that “we don’t have to figure it all out tonight” and the anthemic chorus path to salvation of “it’s a long walk, but it’s the short way home”.
Things shift with Art O’Leary, a slow trotting folk waltz based around the epic 18th century Irish lament, Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire, written by Eileen” O’Connell (from whose perspective he sings) in response to the unjust outlawing and subsequent shooting of her husband.
There can be little doubt about the subject matter of the muscular mid-tempo Death (Quinlan notes that the tiger on the cover represents death), an out on the road, four in the morning cold sweat about the inevitability of mortality where “the bottleneck of dreams is trying to kill me, o death I’m scared of you tonight”. But if the match is always blown out, Quinlan still chooses defiance and life now, as he sings “let the guitars do their thing and I’ll try to remember the words to sing….Not all good things come to an end.”
The resonant piano chords of I Wish That My Sadness Would Make You Change, a reflection on a fractured relationship, mark the transition to the slower, more musically downbeat numbers, albeit with pedal steel, string section and outro backing vocals that include Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland.
The melancholic hesitancy of Vic Chesnutt’s Panic Pure (complete with fireworks solo) provides an interlude in the band-penned material, returning to relationship dynamics with (the slightly plodding) Rotary Phone, the keening Hot Shot (another band on the road far from home track) about a woman who’s “all that I fear, and everything I’m after”, and the simple piano figure of the metaphorical The Civil War Is Over “go back to your corners, the losers always want to fight things over”. The album closes with the touching piano ballad, Sleepy Wife, a seemingly calm after the storm post-argument song with its line about “running rings around fingers” in which he declares ‘life is better than death”, advising “let the wind out of your stare, it’s not worth keeping.”
Despite the musical dichotomy, it’s an outstanding and ultimately upbeat, life-affirming piece of work, but, if you’re listening to those opening tracks in the car, it’s best to have an open sunroof, otherwise you could well break your fist when you punch the sky.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on Blue Rose, July 7