Although responsible for quietly issuing consistently beautiful albums of a mainly indie folk persuasion for over a decade, including an incredible dozen in its first year, I first came into contact with the Hamilton, Ontario-based Other Songs Music Co. (OSMC) label upon the 2012 release of Timid, the Brave’s eponymous, intimate acoustic debut. It is an album of such loveliness that I immediately bookmarked the label as one to keep a close eye on. I am so glad I did.
OSMC was founded by singer-songwriter Scott Orr in order to issue his own debut. Involved as producer and/or musician in most of his label’s catalogue to date, Orr wraps up his tenth year in business with the release of Fault Lines, aside from a digital demos collection the second album proper from Ontarian transplant, James Hoffman. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Hoffman landed in Ontario via British Columbia in 2010, soon running into Orr, who offered the promising young songwriter the support of a label perfectly suited to his talents.
As if by some twist of cosmic design, Hoffman’s elegant Fault Lines arrived in my life at a fortunate or, depending how you look at it, an unfortunate time. Dropping by the OSMC Bandcamp page to see what might be new – also, as you shall read, in great need of musical solace and distraction – I pressed play on the gently swelling opening cut, For What it’s Worth, and was immediately sucked in.
Hoffman describes his 2011 debut, The Union, as containing songs about “spirituality, love and geography.” The overarching theme of this new opus, however, is loss, or as Hoffman eloquently puts it, “the interruptions in life that allow us to reflect on who we are and what matters most.” As for when I first listened to Fault Lines, just a few days prior I had lost a very close friend to a vehicle collision with a drunk driver. It is therefore understandable that in my emotionally vulnerable state I would connect with this album’s subject matter on a deeper than ‘normal’ level. Yet whilst not referring directly to loss through death, Hoffman is nonetheless accurate concerning such an ‘interruption’ and the subsequent introspective aspect of the grieving process, underlining it when stating: “With every loss comes an opportunity to find something, learn something: to grow.”
Regardless of my incidental emotional connection to Fault Lines, in his lyrics Hoffman expresses universal human emotions, fears and insecurities. Despite this, it is not a heavy or depressing record, containing some light and pretty melodies over which the songwriter’s ruminations on the above and other matters are explored, but certain lines are laden with resignation that, no, things can never be like they once were:
When I call out your name / Only the hills call back to me, Hoffman pines in Only the Hills, on which he is joined by the sweet pipes of Nabi Bersche from Toronto indie rockers, The Medicine Hat. In the song that follows, a mellow head-nodder entitled To Hear You Again, the narrator longs for a lost someone: I hear the birds singing / And I just keep thinking / That it could be nice to hear you one more time. Simple, honest and poignant.
But overall, Fault Lines is a collection of songs that hang onto hope, searching for glimmers of joy and light wherever they can be found in the darkness. In the delightful Stability, for example, Hoffman looks at the comfort that can be gleaned from the constancy of a relationship when the world is going to hell in a handbasket all around him: There’s hate in every town / But not where you lay. ‘Hate’ is interchangeable with fear, greed and pain from line to line, but the narrator appears to rise above it all, powered by the focus of his love.
Musically, Fault Lines is a laidback and airy listen, nicely paced with consistently solid, unfussy folk-rock arrangements, plenty of space for the songs to breathe, and crisp production from Hoffman, Orr and drummer Glen Watkinson, of Hamilton’s Sheepdog Studios. There is much here to please fans of such as Bahamas, Mimicking Birds, Bon Iver and – especially on Wish You Well, with its Jonny Buckland-esque ringing guitar tone – even the more tender moments of Coldplay.
I like Fault Lines a lot, and although my own experience of these songs can only ever be associated with the sudden, distressing passing of a dear soul – creating, if you will, a deep fissure, or fault line, on the surface of my world – each listen will also serve to summon beautiful memories of that same person. In this way I can draw great comfort from Hoffman’s thoughtful compositions and, like he says, from the pain of loss can come positive personal growth, from where I can carry on, stronger than before.
Review by: David Morrison
Fault Lines is Out Now via Other Songs Music Co.
Order it here