Three years on from Snow into Fire, the stunning six-track EP that introduced Dirty Grace to the world, the Vancouver-based trio has delivered a wondrous full-length debut further consolidating the two principal aspects of their sonic identity. On the one-hand there is the upbeat, swinging ‘coals’ material, and on the other the mellower ‘crows’ songs, alternately self-tagged as “heart-folk.”
The former category of songs really do bring the party, with rollicking accordion, skittering percussion, joyous vocals and, when the need arises, a bit of beatboxing. Although originating in Western Canada, whether intentional or not this sassy side of Dirty Grace is shot through with echoes of traditional Balkan, Appalachian and Cajun music, full of energy and joie de vivre.
The ‘crows’ songs, such as the back-to-back seven-minute epics Starlight and Earth Song, are deeply soulful and, mirroring the trio’s evident collective environmental concerns, emotive spiritual hymns to Mother Earth, or ruminations on human existence within an infinite universe. An uncanny knack of mining exquisite, heartstring-tugging melodies for this facet of Dirty Grace’s personality adds considerable weight to their undoubted ability to move an audience, a skill displayed numerous times on Coals & Crows.
As established summer festival favourites, in order to achieve the most meaningful and intimate possible connection with their audiences Dirty Grace can – and do – tailor their live performances to either a ‘coals’ or ‘crows’ direction, according to the venue or setting in which they find themselves. The perfect scenario for attendees, of course, is a set comprised of both distinct styles – as obviously occurs, especially at festivals – but, with material this affecting across the board, either/or would do this listener just fine if presented with a choice.
Jesse Thom (Cajon, percussion, drums, guitar), Betty Supple (mandolin, percussion, beatboxing) and ‘Marley Daemon’ (a.k.a. Marlies Iredale: piano, accordion, guitar, beatboxing) all write, and are all extremely powerful vocalists, each of them showcased on lead vocal throughout Coals & Crows. Ushering listeners in with a quiet invitation, it is Thom that opens proceedings on Wrecking Ball, an album highlight of the gentle, emotionally engaging ‘crow’ variant. Welcome to the only place that you’re safe…it’s in your heart, he softly croons, before the spine-tingling harmonies of Supple and Daemon enter the scene. Whether on the balladic songs or the sprightlier numbers, one feature of this gorgeous collection is the unfailingly swelling harmonies; the three voices lock in perfectly to euphoric effect, even when set in a melancholy melodic framework.
While Thom’s voice is gentle, yet persuasive, Supple’s delightful voice, best displayed on the cheeky, lusty Bare Naked, is reminiscent of Anaïs Mitchell or Victoria Williams, therefore playful on the whimsical songs and heartrending on the more introspective compositions. Daemon’s voice is pure and clear with occasional, subtle R & B inflections, and is heard dramatically front and centre on the aforementioned masterpiece, Starlight. Grizzly Bear, Fleetwood Mac and Teenage Fanclub are three bands I can randomly summon as blessed with multiple fine singers that bear no negative effect on their overall coherence, and on the evidence of their first two releases Dirty Grace can certainly be added to this list.
Aided by guest appearances from banjoist Corwin Fox (The Chimney Swallows, Morlove), violinist Elise Boeur (Marmota, Boeur/Sabat), bass players Peter Mynett (Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra) and Sam Friesen, Dirty Grace has created a rich, layered sound throughout, with great attention paid to production detail. And while this is clearly a folk music recording, a track like the dreamy Weapons from the debut EP – which would not sound out of place on a Portishead release – indicates a wide range of influences. Such as vintage jazz, hip-hop beats and indie pop flavours peep through, and running through the intoxicating music is some fascinating lyrical content.
When I Die, for example, speaks of a preference for natural, organic decomposition upon death, as opposed to embalming, to ‘help your garden grow; it’s the best use for this body I know.’ Themes of love and community, worship of the earth and all its creatures abound, but delve deep enough and there is dark subject matter to be found. The song Hinton – named for the small Alberta town in which Thom was born – examines the human experience in the cosmic grand scheme, but also in the third verse bears reference to a place named Cache Picote – ‘Smallpox Camp.’ Before it was known as such, Hinton’s original location ran for 7.5 miles along Hardisty Creek, home to a Cree community that in the late 1860s was being ravaged by smallpox. It is now widely thought that here and in other parts of Canada the disease was deliberately introduced to indigenous peoples by the colonial government of the day via the distribution of smallpox blankets, in an early act of biological warfare aimed, among other acts of subjugation, at seizing land and resources once the population had been wiped out. A documentary exploring this grim episode in Canadian history is currently in production.
Coals & Crows, then, is an intelligent, contemplative, moving, sometimes coltish and frequently beautiful modern Canadian folk album. Whether the ‘coals’ and ‘crows’ categorisation of styles will flow into the next release remains to be seen, or is even a durable concept, but for now it works well in defining the Dirty Grace sound, and in a way neat enough that the band’s burgeoning domestic fan-base knows exactly what to expect.
Review by: David Morrison
Coals & Crows is out now.
Available via Bandcamp