Roberts Hall – 2016
NoiseAgonyMayhem – 6 April 2018
In respect of the Nanaimo, BC duo’s experiences between the release of the two offerings, comparing the sleeve images of Roberts Hall’s debut album, I’ll Send a Friend (NoiseAgonyMayhem, 2016) and this new opus, is an interesting exercise. In the photo adorning the debut Etienne McGuigan (vocals, guitar) and Brendan Holm (vocals, drums, synth, guitar) are performing knee-deep in a river; McGuigan is singing and strumming his heart out, while Holm is seated at a keyboard that happens to be on fire. While it’s an unforgettable image, it also illustrates a sense of playfulness.
Captured by McGuigan “in either Oregon or California,” the image gracing the sleeve of 2016, on the other hand, is dominated by a hazy, thick grey sky, suggesting an almighty storm will imminently break over the headland below. As a ‘road’ image it’s certainly representative of the thousands of miles the pair have eaten up touring Canada and the US West Coast, but its muted, melancholy palette also mirrors the social issues, personal losses and deep concerns about the state of the world that have troubled the soul-searching McGuigan and Holm since the release of I’ll Send a Friend, certain aspects of which permeate 2016’s lyrics.
This is immediately evident in the first lines of the stunning opening track, Chains, a song of disillusionment concerning the fact that, as a species, humankind seemingly willingly shackles itself to societal concepts preventing us making any significant positive progress in how to get along. Over a stabbing guitar riff and soaring background synth wash an earnest McGuigan states:
Times, times have changed / Change stands still / Change your ways / And I feel left out / Don’t you feel left out?
Ultimately building to a sonically euphoric climax, it is one of the grittiest compositions this increasingly impressive folk-rock duo has delivered to date, a dynamic that continues with the following two songs. The Wonder Years is an anthemic nostalgia trip in which McGuigan yearns for the simpler times of his youth, then in the haunting, explosive Hats, on which Holm takes lead vocal, the message is that life is fleeting, so make the most of it. If this passionately performed epic fails to give you goosebumps, I can only assume that no other song released this (or any other) year will either.
Following these three fairly intense rock-based tracks, Holm’s mid-tempo country number, Bellingham, WA brings about a complete change of mood, albeit temporarily. Featuring Juno-winning fiddle maestro Trent Freeman (The Fretless) and spirited gang vocals including the voices of contributors Chris Thompson (Ah, Venice) and Monica McGregor (Truth), it’s a loose, barroom-style gem.
Sequenced for its vinyl release, the moody Apathy concludes the first side, and as in Chains a questioning McGuigan is looking in bewilderment at the world around him, wondering where the hell we go from here:
We’ve been here before / Doesn’t surprise me anymore / Have we become this numb? / If we give it up, are we done? Are we done? Are we done? / Is it too late to turn around? / So far gone and upside down / History repeats itself, so they say / Same old story day after day, day after day…
In respect of what came before and what follows it, the song opening 2016’s second half is a stylistic anomaly. Musically reminding me of Big Star’s In the Street, All I Need is My TV is an upbeat roots-rocker, yet the lyrical subject matter of ubiquitous device, screen and social media addiction is, of course, a deadly serious human problem.
Once again featuring Freeman’s sublime skills, Belfast, 1957 is a personal McGuigan song, recounting his grandparents’ immigration from Ireland to Canada. A lilting folk ballad, it’s the first of a powerful triple-whammy of songs to bring 2016 to a stirring close. Followed by Over Yonder – the video for which will debut on FRUK – of this beautiful song McGuigan says, “The grass isn’t greener on the other side; you can make the grass greener where you reside.” Blessed by lovely backing vocals from McGregor – whose telling contributions throughout should be noted – and again bolstered by Freeman’s stellar fiddle playing it is, quite simply, an utter delight.
As a consequence of Roberts Hall’s experiences on the road, and indeed in our shared hometown of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, one theme present in 2016 is homelessness, and the interconnected stigmatization of mental health in the western world. As I write, this issue is the headline topic du jour in our community, with a ‘tent city’ currently camped on the lawn of City Hall, therefore commented upon here in timely and compassionate fashion on the deeply moving Matches. Holm and McGregor duet on this heartbreaking, Pogues-flavoured ballad, which for all the right musical and all the wrong societal reasons I find difficult to listen to without choking up.
Like its predecessor 2016 was produced by Wolf Parade’s drummer, Arlen Thompson, and after much deliberation, its title was chosen due to the year in question being not only a personally pivotal one for Roberts Hall but also such a seismic twelve months globally. It has all resulted in a mature, intelligent and emotional collection of songs from these young Canadians, wrapping up with the rousing, Holm-led folk-rock behemoth, The Thought of Staying Alive. That it’s such a swaying-with-your-pints-aloft singalong number feels like a defiant reaction to its tragic subject matter, described by Holm as “about a friend’s embarrassing death after years of crippling social anxiety.”
So, 2016 sure deals with some heavy themes, both personal and universal, and – as Roberts Hall would attest – in some instances, its avowed intent is to provoke debate, and hopefully inspire action. Purely from a musical perspective, however, this fine roots-rock album is a joyous thing indeed, packed with surging melodies, aching balladry, bona fide anthems and top notch performances by all involved. 2016 is the best of all worlds, then, and with two wonderful records now under their belts, if they maintain this standard Roberts Hall could well blow the doors off with their third.
2016 is release digitally and on vinyl on April 6th