The Canadian folk and roots music world is packed full of talent nowadays. Natalie MacMaster, just one of so many superb players of traditional and contemporary Celtic music on Cape Breton and Prince Edward Islands, evangelists of the Québécois tradition, Le Vent du Nord, and superbly talented singer/songwriter Dennis Ellsworth, also from PEI, have delighted my ears in recent months. But nothing prepared me for the eclectic mix of sounds on this second album from West My Friend, a four piece band from Victoria on Vancouver Island.
A quick glance at the makeup of the band gives little indication of what is to come, Eden Oliver on guitar, Alex Rempel on mandolin, Jeff Poynter on accordion and Adam Bailey on bass with all four contributing vocals and taking combined song writing credits. The title track, When The Ink Dries, opens the album starting with Alex’s mandolin repeating a simple 4 note phrase before he comes in with the vocal lead, eventually joined by Eden, her voice providing a harmony line that lightens the tone a just a little while the lyrics continue to make oblique reference to a series of challenges, met with resignation rather than optimism captured in the refrain ‘Come what may’. The second half of this short song begins to hint that such simplicity is not going to be a defining characteristic of the album. A combination of pump organ and piano, both played by Jeff, help the voices build to a crescendo by the end of the track.
The following song, The Tattoo That Loved Her Anyway, is a much more upbeat affair, notable for vocals that switch between harmonising in a style reminiscent of 1940s close harmony groups and overlaying two different lyrics and melodies. The words, contrasting rejection by a lover with the constant companionship of a tattoo begin to show why ‘quirky’ is a word commonly used to describe the band’s lyrics.
I’m normally loathe to review an album track by track, but I’ll have to make something of an exception here, miss a track and you miss a trick…or two. In the case of track 3, Missing You, the band unleash something of a secret weapon, bringing in guests, Miguelito Valdez and Scott MacInnes who contribute a punchy brass section using trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and bass trombone. The result, a multilayered sound that brought to mind songs commissioned as movie themes for meaningful but frothy romantic comedies, think 70s/80s Goldie Hawn. Similar instrumentation is used on Thin Hope but in a far more subdued way, giving the lyrics more space to tell their story.
The full brass line up is also prominent on the longest, most complex track, The Cat Lady Song, where the arrangement is enhanced by core band members adding flute, clarinet and recorder and Adrian Dolan guests, arranging not just his strings but also the brass and woodwind. The song pitches the slightly odd ball concept of two cats, who’d quite like to live together, plotting to make a love potion that will ensure their owners, the cat ladies of the title, also fall in love. I doubt it was a thought that ever occurred to T S Eliot but in the hands of West My Friend the result is a song that wouldn’t be out of place in an avant garde rewrite of Cats.
The stage musical style is also apparent in tracks such as Lady Doubt whilst Dark and Deep is more reminiscent of cabaret jazz and, to close the album, Last Call is a plaintive, country tinged bar room lament. But, holding true to their reputation for quirky lyrics,the twist here is that the guy isn’t drinking, he’ll go home and write a song instead. The level of virtuosity and imagination shown on this album is remarkable and virtually every track holds a pleasant surprise. The band, collectively, is clearly inspired by a wide range of influences and styles and they’ve chosen, in the main, to reflect that track by track rather than blending styles within a song. Anyone attracted by that concept will find this album a treasure trove of delights.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Full Album Stream
Released via Grammar Fight Records (September 2014)