I have always loved music of any style with literate, intelligent, or whimsical lyrics. Equally, having absorbed a whole whack of classical music and progressive rock down the decades, I have a deep appreciation of virtuosity and imaginative, complex arrangements. It is therefore particularly pleasing to me when these factors all meet in one band, as they often do to great effect in the highly inventive Canadian quartet, West My Friend.
Following 2012’s Place and 2014’s When the Ink Dries (read the FRUK review here), wondrous both, Quiet Hum is West My Friend’s third album of utterly captivating, exploratory folk music. However, whereas its two predecessors were peppered with nimble, nigh on symphonic compositions and intricate vocal arrangements, Quiet Hum is a considerably more restrained and direct affair. This is West My Friend in a largely reflective and melancholy mood, yet despite the shift in atmosphere from aestival to autumnal everything special about the band’s overall sonic identity remains very much intact.
With tongue in cheek these four brilliant musicians describe their gorgeous sound as “Cascadian third-wave indie prog chamber folk-roots music,” and for want of a better description I am happy to go with that. The inclusion of ‘chamber’ in that handle is pertinent, as there is a distinct baroque character permeating much of their work, though unsurprisingly when considering that three of West My Friend received classical musical educations to degree level: Eden Oliver (lead vocal, guitar) graduated on flute, which she picks up occasionally; Jeff Poynter (accordion, backing vocals) earned his stripes on classical saxophone, while Alex Rempel (mandolin, vocals) studied double bass. The fourth and newest member, Nick Mintenko, also took double bass, but in a jazz programme.
That all but Mintenko perform and craft their impeccable music with such precision and sophistication on what are essentially extracurricular instruments is nothing short of amazing, but this is one good reason why West My Friend have been lavished with deserved praise since arriving on the Canadian folk scene out of Victoria, BC, just four years ago. Greeted like a breath of fresh air upon the release of their debut, they remain so with the achingly lovely, emotionally powerful Quiet Hum.
Central to West My Friend’s success is Eden Oliver’s remarkable voice, centre stage on ten of this new offering’s thirteen tracks. It is rare to hear a singer of such clarity and purity of voice, also blessed with perfect enunciation, but Oliver is such a talent. She can deliver with tenderness or gusto, with a timbre consistent with that required of musical theatre performers, should she ever decide to move into that area.
Oliver’s first line on Quiet Hum’s opener, No Good Monster, is I don’t want to write a song today. Penned on a day when it would not come easily, the song examines the songwriting process from the perspective of the inner critic, and the vulnerability attached to letting a song go for all the world to hear. As I have come to expect from West My Friend, despite its apparently difficult birth it is an effortlessly charming song. Poynter’s Gallic-flavoured accordion and Rempel’s sprightly mandolin dance joyfully all over it, with Mintenko’s bass pinning it down.
The lyrics of the following A Birthday are lifted wholesale from a poem of the same title by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), and one of four songs on Quiet Hum containing lyrics from sources outside the band. Tombée (Falling) is another poem, by Joanne Morency, whom Oliver met and bonded with over a campfire in Banff, Alberta. Canadian activist/artist Zachary Gough wrote the words for the Celtic-tinged All Day Long, a song about ‘work, purpose and capitalism’ that further illustrates the sociopolitical concerns that are frequently aired, both subtly and less so, in West My Friend’s material. The final non-band lyric is found in a stirring cover of the vocal loop pedal utilising songwriter Julia Easterlin’s love song, Go Straightaway, from her 2013 Vestiges album, and a long-time West My Friend live favourite.
Aside from the enchanting appeal of their ornate music, as I stated in the opening paragraph one facet of this band’s craft I greatly admire is the depth and intelligence of the lyrics. On Quiet Hum West My Friend take subject matter of real gravitas to create beautiful, thought provoking songs like Gradient Graceful. Concerning aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, I am especially moved by lines like, Tell me do you know, do you / When you’ve come undone? because an elderly friend of mine, fully compos mentis just weeks ago, is now firmly in the grip of dementia, fading quickly from this world.
Elsewhere, via a supposed dialogue between two colonizers The New World examines dark aspects of Canadian colonial history and the shocking crimes perpetrated upon First Nations peoples, such as the notorious residential school system and the theft of land. Interestingly, however, in Rempel’s wonderful closing baroque pop epic, How Could I Not Sing? the role of musicians in presenting such hard-hitting themes is also considered. As Rempel explains it:
I want music to present interpretations and information to an audience to push them to think independently and critically about an issue, rather than try to force my own view onto them. On the same side of the coin, then, is what I see as an obligation to use our position as artists and especially as performers to do this kind of presenting and unveiling.
There is much more I could say about this unique band and Quiet Hum – such as Mintenko’s heartbreaking Where Has My Love Gone? or Oliver’s Spruce Top, a paean to the sound and imagery that can be created with just a voice and a guitar – but I will leave it there for you to discover them, and it, for yourselves.
Crisply produced by the storied David Travers-Smith at Fiddlehead Studio on tiny Mayne Island, BC, although displaying a less blithe musical spirit this time around Quiet Hum makes a mockery of the ‘difficult third album’ notion, instead cementing West My Friend’s place in Canada’s modern folk elite. It is an outstanding release and their most moving material to date, yet only four years since their debut it feels like West My Friend are still gathering speed, with plenty more innovative Cascadian third-wave indie prog chamber folk-roots music set to be unveiled in years to come.
Quiet Hum is released 27 May
Available via Bandcamp here: https://westmyfriend.bandcamp.com/