What I like about Canyon is their lyricism, both vocal and instrumental. As a whole, this band has obviously learned what might be the most difficult yet important element of songwriting and performing: restraint. They’ve put it into practice on this album, which is both physically beautiful and intellectually noteworthy for how much the songs accomplish as wholes by the careful yet confident arrangement of small, simple pieces.
The songs are led by acoustic guitar and voice, but it’s not a simple singer-songwriter-dominatrix set-up. Rather than being mere backup instrumentation, the array of music is completely integral to the songs. I can’t imagine any song on the record working better with just guitar and voice, and I’d love to see what Canyon (Brandon Butler, Derry deBorga, Joe Winkle, John Wall, Vin Novarra) could do with say one strictly instrumental track. It’s a tribute to musicianship when you can listen to a bassline, a simple one at that, and enjoy focusing on it, or allow your attention to get bounced between vocals and keyboards.
About the only thing Brandon Butler does that pushes the boundaries of lyrics is stretch some (not all, it’s no Sunny Day Real Estate power-slingshot) syllables across lines, beats and chord changes. That syllable-management is an almost invisible merit—tough to do well—that roamingly empowers both lyrics and vocals. And even what he does within lyrical/vocal conventions is pretty impressive. The clincher of “Yellow Tape” goes “one night, Death he came knockin / I let him in . . . he’s an old family friend”, lines I’m completely jealous and in awe of, word- and delivery-wise. Even though it’s repeated a couple of times throughout the song, that last time, when most of the instruments have been subtracted, is a beautiful, perfectly presented shred of despair. “Faith Has Broken Down” is a sharply executed metaphor hinging between mechanics and spirit, and I also like the elusiveness of certain lines in “Wheat Penny”: “no one can tell me . . . keep the liquor comin . . . I won’t fuck around”.
I’m crazy about the drummer too, and it begins with when he doesn’t play very much, or even at all, during certain stretches, so that when he does come full-in, the simplest of maneuvers takes on a real significance. During the verses of “At the Mouth”, it’s as if he’s exploring what he can do with a closed and then quickly released high-hat. On “The Long Weekend”, he lets a kind of running roll create an extra emotional contour to the song. On “Faith Has Broken Down”, rather than cluttering the song, he lays back with the bundles, snare, and tambourine.
There’s a really great cast of guests too: Yalan Papillons with the “ahh” that trails down “At the Mouth” and Mazzy Star-ish lyric-echoing in “Wheat Penny”, Amy Heath playing an elementary but turbulent trumpet on “The Long Weekend”, and Michael Pahn adding some hand claps towards the end of “It’s Running Out” at just the right time to give an extra little hitch to the dark-smooth beat.
Closing the album is a real strong tune, “Found”. It’s slow, vast, and somewhat lurching, with a thick curtain of sustained electric guitar casting out over the first half of the song. It then moves into a brief, slightly eerie bridge (that’s another thing Canyon does well, another impressive test they pass—bridges that are like quick, distinct, almost fragmented interludes) before closing with a one-notch more forceful movement that, even though none of the instruments are playing hard, gives the song a kind of accumulation that’s flat-out immaculate to end an album on. It sounds tired, as it should, but it’s the sense of fatigue and weariness that allows Canyon to steadily expand their moments into something subtly immense.
// Notes from the Road
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