Hailing from Vancouver Island’s ‘Hub City’ of Nanaimo, Roberts Hall is a young duo claiming what on paper is a wildly eclectic range of influences, and even more intriguing curricula vitae. Étienne McGuigan (lead vocals, guitar) hails from New Brunswick, boasts a mainly jazz background and helps pay the bills by performing in a touring Malanka polka band, lederhosen ‘n’ all. Brendan Holm (drums, synth, vocals) grew up in the tiny Vancouver Island community of Merville (where, he says, the height of childhood entertainment was “whacking a bush with a stick”), and amongst other projects he plays bass in a live techno outfit, and drums in a Latin/funk/ska band. Voracious music consumers, the Roberts Hall boys cite Daft Punk, Trans Am, Beastie Boys, Bill Evans, firehose, the Milk Carton Kids, The Band, Califone and D’Angelo as amongst their key inspirations and obsessions.
How is it, then, that this potpourri of experience and tastes has led to one of the most rewarding Canadian roots releases of 2016 so far? Well, a diverse selection of ingredients can make an unexpectedly tasty meal, and so it is with I’ll Send a Friend. These guys evidently possess an open-minded collaborative chemistry, and from a base of indie rock with folk-rock, country, blues and even gospel thrown in the pot they have produced a cohesive full-length debut, albeit somewhat eccentric.
Roberts Hall revealed the first results of their partnership in 2014 with an engaging five song digital EP entitled Animal Encyclopedia. Featuring an extraordinary vocal from McGuigan, the standout cut is the spine-tingling opener, When I’m Gone, and on the evidence of that track alone it was clear that Roberts Hall was a new band to bookmark. As they gigged regularly on Vancouver Island, on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and down the USA’s West Coast, also bagging a pivotal hometown opening slot for Boston’s fast-rising art-rockers Bent Knee, local anticipation for a full length release intensified.
When getting down to the business of creating I’ll Send a Friend, Roberts Hall found themselves in the fortunate situation of receiving support and input from influential local friends and heavyweights of the indie rock world. Partly recorded at former Hot Hot Heat guitarist Dante DeCaro’s studio, and co-produced by the duo with drummer Arlen Thompson of the recently reignited Wolf Parade, the album is issued on music industry veteran David Read’s hilariously monikered NoiseAgonyMayhem label. The end result certainly justifies their collective faith in McGuigan and Holm.
Anacortes, WA. kicks off proceedings with a quiet introduction and an on-the-road narrative from McGuigan, into what at the two-minute mark transforms into a joyous folk-rock romp, resplendent with Hey, hey, hey! backing vocals from Holm. Following the anthemic, gritty Toxic Love, McGuigan whines the blues with tongue firmly in cheek on the fabulous The Actress: Ain’t got no money / Ain’t got no job / I’m all torn up / And I feel like a slob, he moans. The gorgeous, emotive slow-burner Song in C follows before I’ll Send a Friend’s country-gospel centrepiece, The Lord’s Lament marks a most satisfying halfway point. The album’s only instrumental, a delicate ambient guitar piece entitled Lulla-Bye ushers in the album’s only cover version, but it is an obscure one. Jean was originally recorded by the defunct Moncton, New Brunswick folk-rock outfit Danger Cat, and as one of the cuts on the Animal Encyclopedia EP it appears here in reworked, fleshed out fashion. With a voice somewhere between Jonathan Richman and The Sadies’ Dallas Good, Holm takes lead vocals for the off-kilter alt. country double whammy of Nothin’ Worse and Castle of Dreams, before I’ll Send a Friend concludes with the melancholy, jarring epic, Song in E.
There’s a bit of everything in this fine album: it is often emotionally affecting, at times amusing and playfully odd, sometimes mysterious and others dark and gloomy, but overall it is never less than a compelling listen from a fascinating new band. And, although entirely self-financed, after just wrapping up a coast-to-coast Canadian tour Roberts Hall are aiming high with plans on the table for a full European jaunt in the summer of 2017. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, but until an opportunity to see Roberts Hall perform across the Atlantic there is much to enjoy in this excellent collection of songs.
I’ll Send a Friend is out now.
Find them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RobertsHallBand/
Photo Credit: Christopher Thompson