[1 December 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The debut solo album from the Constantines’ frontman Bry Webb, Provider, might come as a bit of a shock to long-time fans of the lauded Canadian indie rock group, which has either broken up or gone on hiatus, depending upon who you talk to. You won’t hear the Fugazi-meets-Springsteen sound that the Constantines were (are?) known to mine on Provider. Instead, you get some very slow and sadly beautiful songs played in a bluesy/country style. It’s about as radical a departure you could expect, something that Mark Kozelek might put together. However, Provider, well, provides a stunning background soundtrack of subtle ambience and skilled musicianship that proves that Webb can do other things than write soaring indie rock anthems, and fine ones at that. Provider is strikingly different territory, and those who feel inclined to come along for the ride will find an album that is richly textured, nuanced, extremely mature and wise beyond its years for a musician best known for simply rocking out.
The album opens with “Asa”, which is a lullaby to the singer’s newborn son, a song that utterly shimmers with its ghostly bluesy guitar and Webb’s rich baritone voice lilting above this quite simple but effective arrangement. It is stark and astoundingly gorgeous, a healing meditation on the love one man has for his offspring. It’s the sort of song that makes you want to kneel before your speakers and openly weep. Here, as well as elsewhere on this stunning disc, Webb effectively illustrates that sometimes less is more, and he simply lets his voice and guitar softly carry the listener along in a transcendent state of bliss. “Rivers of Gold”, meanwhile, is pure raconteur: while it is ostensibly about a miner panning for gold during the Yukon Gold Rush of the late 19th century, it is also a song that could very well be about his (former?) band: “I was working in a gold rush city,” Webb explains, “I was playing in a band / We had an understanding that only we could understand / I was making a decent living in the Yukon Territory / Thinking about all those who came before me / I’m the one most free.” Again, the song is successful as it leans towards sparse minimalism: it’s just Webb’s voice, an acoustic guitar gently and slowly strummed, and a pedal steel guitar offering up some tasty and shimmering licks in the background.
“Zebra”, meanwhile, is another song that straddles the personal as it recounts the singer’s anxiety at becoming a father: “Zebra standing on the moon / Looking down upon the Earth / Helpless in the operating room / While the wife is giving birth.” It is another low-key and soft, meditative song that is wholly universal and entirely relatable, one that swoons in its chorus with some delightful male/female harmonizing on some gentle “lie lie lie, lie la lie’s”. It’s easy to just simply lie back with your eyes open and arms crossed against the back of your head and gently daydream to. Then there’s the stark and soaring “Undertaker”, which is a track with built upon a humourous comment Webb’s grandmother made about the singer’s disposition. The song is anything but funny, as the singer-songwriter wonders about the effects of his relative fame on those that he knows. The cut is bolstered by a brooding brass section rubbing effectively against the plaintive acoustic guitar, and is ultimately rousing and triumphant. “Get Up You in Peace” follows as an uplifting minor key spiritual with glorious harmonies in its chorus, and is just as memorable as the tracks that preceded it. These first five songs make up a wholly satisfying and consistent opening salvo, one that asserts the power and transcendence of the author’s grasp and read on the material.
“Ex-Punks”, which opens the second half of the nine-song disc, is a slight but noticeable shift in approach. It is the only song on the record that has a kick-drum beat and shakers providing percussion, and the bluesy guitar and thudding bassline, as well as some of the lyricism (“Let hungry corrupt the memory / Let them call the cops”), makes it seem like it could be a Constantines’ song in another incarnation. It is hardly a misstep as it is engaging in its own right, but one gets the sense that it is a bit of a straggler on what is otherwise a well conceived album. From there, things right themselves back towards the overall thematic of the album: “Persistent Spirit” is a countrified number with pedal steel that could be a Wilco ballad from early years yore. “Lowlife” follows in the same drunkenly country vibe and feel. Finally, “Viva” is a lilting finely plucked gem that sounds as though it were played on a harp.
In overall style, Provider is a deeply personal and resonate album. It’s the sort of thing that you just won’t be able to get enough of, you’ll be reaching to play it all over again once it has finished, and even might wish was just a little bit longer. In some ways, the record feels like a masculine version of a Feist record, at least in its most fragile moments—and that comparison isn’t untoward considering that Webb contributes guest vocals on Metals and is opening for Feist on her November/December 2011 Canadian tour. All that is left to be said about Provider is that if, indeed, the Constantines have been laid to rest, Webb has a solid future ahead of him as a solo balladeer. Provider is a stunning and revealing record full of worldly insight, and leaves you begging for more.