One of the unexpected pleasures of being a reviewer for Fatea is stumbling across musical gems that hitherto would have been well outside of my musical radar. This is one of them!
For those like me who are unfamiliar with Oliver Swain, his website biography tells us he hails from Victoria, BC, and is one of Canada's quintessential folk and traditional musicians. Over the past 15 years, he has honed his craft in the folk and roots music scene as a vocalist, playing banjo and upright bass, performing solo, with his own band or as a member of others. He has worked with many of the USA and Canada's most loved roots bands including The Bills, The Duhks, Outlaw Social and The Red Stick Ramblers. As if this was not enough, he also runs the Victoria Django Festival each February in his home city, recently toured as half of the Leonard Cohen tribute project Tower of Song and put down bass and some vocals with another side project, a rock band called Fans & Motor Supply Co. Oliver Swain is a busy man indeed, but the range and diversity described only hints at the bases covered here.
For this album, 'Oliver Swains Big Machine' consists of Oliver on vocals, stand up bass, banjo and acoustic guitar and features his flexible road and studio band boasting another eight members that together create a very broad musical palette.
The opening track 'Never More Together' is ushered in by a lovely banjo and violin rhythm piece before slowing slightly as Oliver's voice appears. It continues in this vein until the rousing chorus pops up somewhat unexpectedly, but is none the less welcome for that. One of the striking things about the eight tracks on this CD is the rich creativity on show; each track is almost a minor orchestrated classic in itself, full of engaging musical twists and turns.
Oliver's voice is equally difficult to pin down. Fundamentally, it is deceptively gentle but also remarkably flexible and at times he sounds like a playful Jack Johnson, at others bordering on Rufus Wainright, then further still, hints of Brian Ferry!
Track two 'No Strange Thing' has a little acoustic riff intro before the lazy drum shuffle and violin make an appearance, entering in almost trip hop Morcheeba fashion! This is really a duet song featuring the lovely voice of Emily Braden and an early stand out track.
'Maggie, Molly & Raul' is a very arranged number, featuring time changes, different vocal effects and almost sounds like it was taken from a musical. Probably the most quirky piece here, but strangely captivating nonetheless!
Track four, 'Gone', is the nearest thing to a straightforward song on show with Oliver's vocal sounding very strong and it features some fine ensemble playing leading to a beautifully built ending.
'The Moan' is a short instrumental piece featuring all sorts of weird and wonderful noises and I can imagine this being the opening credit music for the sort of film Ry Cooder usually writes the score for!
This leads seamlessly into 'Apple Suckling Tree' with its wonderfully chugging rhythm, drones and instrumentation. A great track that yet again defies categorisation.
'Old Dreams' with its acoustic picked intro is a deceptively simple song that builds beautifully and the album ends with the eight minute opus that is 'Take Me Up'.
This starts with more cinematic, wheezing and groaning instrumentation before Oliver's vocal enters in lovely ballad mode at around two minutes for a minute or so of sweetness. This further heralds the arrival of another syncopated, choppy rhythm, which again builds beautifully until it drops back into the spacey instrumentation of the opening two minutes as the song fades. This really is a wonderfully inventive track and features the vocal highlight of the album for me.
So, only eight tracks in all but no sense of being short changed here, far too much going on for that.
This is genre defying music at its best and although acoustic roots maybe a point of reference or location, these really are sounds that cannot be pigeon holed.
The album is beautifully played, arranged and performed, each song a mini masterpiece of creativity that is clearly a labour of love.
Simply wonderful stuff!
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