At a Calexico show a year or so ago here in Toronto, Jason Collett was invited up to help give a stirring, unforgettable performance of Dylan’s religious-era curio “Gotta Serve Somebody”. As the room around me began to heave and sway, Collett (all cool vintage jeans and faded sportsjacket, looking every bit the natural rock star) wowed the scene, making the number his own, leaving me deeply impressed. Calexico’s Joey Burns played wearing such a grin, staring at Collett as he belted out the endless series of preachy lyrics, delivering them with such poise and confidence that it seemed an effort to recall that he hadn’t penned them himself. It was a wild, vital moment, and one I love to replay for my friends when they criticize the Toronto scene for its endless parochialism. Here was a relatively unknown local hero, up there on stage, and I mean owning Dylan, while backed by what must be the most un-Toronto indie band in the business.
But, Jason Collett, Broken Social Scenester and singer-songwriter, plays the kind of acoustic-rock that frequently inspires such comparisons with greatness. This is sometimes a backhanded compliment, of course, since to be compared with an undisputed master is to be simultaneously praised for your talent while being tacitly denied for your redundancy. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan – and aren’t Steve Forbert and Loudon Wainwright always going to be the “new” Dylans? And don’t they likely hate that shit?
Thing is, Collett is blessed/cursed with a voice that, on record anyway, is comfortable, reassuring, but vaguely forgettable; therein lies the rub. Throughout Here’s to Being Here, his excellent fifth record, Collett never really pushes into vocal territory that he can wholly claim as his own. There are shades everywhere, falling like shadows across the performances: here is David Gray, here Gram Parker, here Ron Sexsmith, here Jeff Tweedy, here (his friend and sometimes collaborator) Hawksley Workman. And so, as good as this stuff is, there’s forever this tug on your collar, this gentle reminder that Collett is a bit stuck.
But, to be stuck with such a record! Passionate songwriting, glorious instrumental performances, and a stirring sense of genuine pleasure infuse the thing. Beautifully produced by Howie Beck (another Torontonian and local hero), it’s a completely rewarding listen, driven by solid, inspired musicianship. The revolving door backing band (comprised of musicians and friends including much-travelled bassist Tony Scherr, Apostle of Hustle, and fellow BSS-ers Kevin Drew and Jason Mercer) lends bliss and lightness here, while elsewhere providing darkness and edge. As Collett paints evocative scenes, developing sweetly textured characters, his friendly voice all the while floats above, asking, and never demanding, that we follow him along. He has, quite simply, rarely sounded better. Indeed, in his now ten-year career, his songwriting has never been more powerful, never more affecting, than on the mid-record doubleshot of the gorgeous “Charlyn, Angel of Kensington” and the heartbreaking “Henry’s Song”.
Ultimately, Collett has dropped what is surely his best record to date. Thoroughly mature, endlessly melodic, and superbly crafted, Here’s to Being Here is a joyful noise. From the playful, campfire beauty of “No Redemption Song” and “Waiting for the World” to the swinging pop-rock of “Nothing to Lose” and “Sorry Lou”, Collett’s music is here all smiles. Even when it’s sad, it’s a kind of beautiful, uplifiting sadness. Resplendent in its deftly layered arrangements, his simple, melodic songs will likely keep musicians and music-lovers alike hitting the repeat. Now, where’s that next Collet-xico collaboration?