I first encountered the delightful, ramshackle alt. folk and the intriguing opaque lyrical imagery of Roger Dean Young & the Tin Cup upon the 2006 release of the beguiling Casa. Issued by Loose in the UK, it was to be their sole release for the label. Shortly thereafter I had the pleasure of staging a show for Young and his fine band, opening for their then label-mate, Corb Lund.
As can happen, and considering my wife and I were somewhat preoccupied with a 7,679 km move across the world to Vancouver Island, as well as many other musicians I unintentionally fell out of touch with what Young had been up to after that. Incredibly, however, I was to randomly bump into the charming fellow twice here, at two different small music festivals. It transpired he and his young family had moved to Victoria in 2008, and he was now working as a youth counsellor.
Following Casa, in 2007 Young domestically released Threshold on Copperspine. More a collective than a label, the affiliation of artists involved in it – including Young – described Copperspine as “dedicated to bringing attention to art and craft that flows out of original and tangible experience…the unifier (being) the common desire to serve the creative muse, rather than to contrive product.” This aesthetic philosophy in place, Copperspine issued a handful of marvellous albums by artists such as The Neins Circa, Dyad, and a bona fide ethereal folk classic, The Myth & the Mile, from long-time Young cohort, Tin Cup guitarist, (Chris) C.S. Rippin.
And then, concentrating more on family life, Young effectively entered semi-retirement from music for many years, deciding to shelve the still-unreleased Down Easy Tin Cup album from 2010 as he waited for “the industry to shake down into a really stable consumption model,” before peeping above the parapet three years ago with the intimate, acoustic solo mini-album, Evening Songs II, available only on Bandcamp.
What an unexpected thrill it is, then, that in 2018 Young has returned with a brand new full-band album, Wrought Iron Will, and with it a subtly tweaked, poppier sound under the new moniker of Roger Dean Young & the Tin Sea. Take it from me that this gorgeous offering has been well worth the wait, but until Young explained the rationale to me I was puzzled by the name change:
“Tin Cup was my metaphor for people dropping into it; it wasn’t a band so much as a ‘musical drop-in,’ as I always toured with a different group. Chris Rippin is a mainstay, but there was a lot of come and go, which is how I’d planned it. Tin Cup was at the time of the Americana boom, so I thought the name became too clichéd. When I moved to Vancouver Island I wanted to put the promotion of music behind me and just play, so it was simply under The Tin Sea, not with my name attached, but several people told me that I had a bit of a presence before the release of this album, so I added my name again.”
Mostly recorded live off the floor on the stage of Vancouver’s historic Vogue Theater back in February 2014, Wrought Iron Will should appeal greatly to anyone in thrall to the likes of Will Oldham, Hiss Golden Messenger, Howe Gelb and indie roots music in general. A tad offbeat, sonically rustic and melodically pretty, although there is no vinyl release planned the album is deliberately sequenced as such, with two distinct moods for sides A and B. The first five songs are lighter, sometimes musically playful, whereas the following five occupy a more introspective space. Lyrically, the enigmatic Young summons all manner of fascinating wordplay, but states that there is a theme running through Wrought Iron Will, the roots of which emanate from his world of work:
“I work with kids who have been dealt a lousy hand in life, and who are caught in the moment of decision on whether to stay, or whether to fold. The morning that we pull ourselves up and walk towards meaningful action is fascinating and full of mystery to me. The theme is kind of a character narrative based on a man losing touch with ‘the will,’ that spark to keep going.”
Young has assembled an extraordinary ensemble of musicians for this project. Alongside Young and the ever-present Chris Rippin (about whom Young says he will collaborate with “until they pass on”) are Elephant Island members Marc Jenkins (guitar, pedal steel) and Jamie Cummins (keyboards, accordion); double bassist Mark Beaty (Vancouver Island Symphony, The Be Good Tanyas, La Candela, more), drummer Cary Pratt (Prairie Cat, labelled by Young as “an exuberant life force”), trumpeter Shaun Brodie (Hayden, Dan Mangan, more), harmony/duet singers, Rebecca Till and Mary Cleaver, and a six-piece backing ‘choir.’ Young and his music evidently inspire loyalty, stating as he does about this Tin Sea line-up:
“The unifying thread of all these musicians seems to be their good-natured souls, and belief that what we do has value, though no one has really ever made much more than $20 at a time off the band!”
It may only run for 37 minutes, but Wrought Iron Will is crammed with beautiful material. The opening cut is a jangly roots-pop tune, The Scarf, punctuated from the minute mark on by accordion stabs, and boasting the haunting lyric:
This is how it goes: you breathe in, you breathe out; you breathe in ‘til the heartbeat slows…
Of The Scarf Young says that of the ten songs here it was the least “rooted in the conscious,” that he “just let go and painted some images that made sense” to him. It is followed by the wonderful V (Charlie), the video for which premiered on FRUK back in November 2016. Like a couple of other numbers on Wrought Iron Will it is an insistent earworm, typical of the deliberate poppy approach to the album:
“I’d had kids and they liked coming to the shows,” Young explains, “and I realized that not only they, but a lot of people, didn’t necessarily want to listen to an introspective folk singer all night. I’ve watched Nathaniel Rateliff go from a morose folk singer to a soul singer, and I think a lot of us get tired of ourselves, so I thought okay, I can make something that reflects another emotional state.”
On the heels of the atmospheric The Will is, for me, the album’s real standout, The Hollows. Featuring a cheeky, positively funky Beaty bassline, Jenkins’ glistening pedal steel and a hushed vocal from Young, if anything it is even more seductively poppy than V (Charlie), and that is saying something. Forward for Now concludes side A, ushering in an edgier, more reflective second side commencing with Lone Wolf, followed by Let Go. The latter is a personal song, the lyrical content of which Young reveals as “kind of about wanting to return to music as a form of spiritual expression in my life.”
Another highlight is the exquisite, lilting A Smile, in which Young duets with Till, a lifelong friend he has known since she was a little girl. The loping and dramatic Promise comes across as some kind of fantasy melding of Neil Young and Giant Sand before proceedings wrap up with the horn-propelled second single, Ever Green.
Wrought Iron Will sure has been a long time coming, obviously since the last Young release with the Tin Cup, but even since a few pre-release CD copies quietly appeared locally around eighteen months ago. Young has been deliberating how to roll it out and, in his patience waiting for the music industry to hopefully achieve his perceived ‘stable consumption model,’ how to get back in the saddle of actively promoting his art, especially in a manner befitting the Copperspine ideology. In such an overpopulated marketplace with confusing, multi-platform listening and/or purchase options , how indeed, but I for one am extremely glad he finally made the decision to do so, as music of this quality is just too valuable to remain unheard.
Produced and mixed by Brodie Smith, Wrought Iron Will is released on April 13th, and for anyone lucky enough to be in the area at the time, the album’s official launch party will take place at the ‘art, event and food-centric’ space, TOAST Collective, located at 648 Kingsway, Vancouver, BC, Canada, on Friday April 21st.
Photo Credit: Brodie Smith