[19 March 2007]
Having earned critical accolades and multiple awards in its native Canada, Nathan (a four-piece band, not a male solo performer) is heralded as being among the cream of that country’s crop of contemporary folk artists. With its roots in the soil of traditional folk, and its branches extended toward ‘60s guitar jangle, shimmering pop/rock and even jazz idioms, Key Principles, the group’s third offering, is a perpetually spirited, often tender album with the potential to push the band’s music beyond regional borders and in the direction of widespread success.
With the ability to gravitate toward a range of sounds, Nathan relies on tightly coiled musical threads to keep its work consistent. The most central and compelling feature of the group’s sound comes in the energy derived from the vocal interplay between principal songwriter Keri Latimer and multi-instrumentalist Shelley Marshall. Stylistically, both singers are reminiscent of the tone and quality realized by Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash or the Dupree sisters of Eisley. Achieving a near familial connection, their often overlapping vocals result in harmonies which are alternately celestial and sprightly. Devin Latimer and Damon Mitchell comprise the group’s rhythm section and give the dual vocalists the necessary room to explore such a variety of musical textures and techniques.
The members of Nathan certainly excel within the constructs of straightforward folk/pop blends whether relaxed (“Ordinary Day”, “Malorie”, or a bit more insistent,“Let Them Look”). However, slight deviations from these structures tend to lead to wonderful possibilities, including gems like “Daffodils”, a track which begins a simple pop song and ends a spinning, twirling crescendo of vocals, horns and handclaps. Songs like “You Win” and “The Boulevard Back Then” present a slightly modern take on way back sounds, using elements found in jazz and country standards that certainly influenced the group. Possibly the most apt description of the band’s music and the worldview it expresses comes in the form of a lyric included on the track “Key Principles of Success”: Latimer writes, “Lift me out of this dustbowl and hand me a champagne.” At times, Nathan’s songs sound earthy and desperate, at others, fanciful and brimming with a buoyant optimism.
The songs on Key Principles are beautiful and challenging, not simply because of the band’s aptitude for blending together traditional and contemporary musical languages. The themes discussed and images conveyed manage to be both universal and specific in application; the sentiments expressed and the narrators expressing them could reside halfway around the world, or in the house next door. On a grand scale, people identify with coming-of-age accounts of youthful indiscretion and the gradual passing of innocence. When expressed through a Latimer lyric: “Campfire fueled by some old fence and skies like planetariums / And I’m too shy to kiss your neck, so I kick dirt at Curtis” (from “John Paul’s Deliveries”), wistful feelings of nostalgia gain shape and form, take on flesh and blood. Listeners can understand why small town kids would beg each other to “take me away where the lights start fading and darkness erases potential I’ve wasted,” as the narrator of “Trans Am” does. When such a desire is coupled with lyrics that discuss the motivation for flight, such as being late for work or an important payment, the yearning becomes increasingly more relatable.
In eras past where oral tradition was the primary means of storytelling, tales would often evolve as they were passed down from generation to generation, elements and details added and altered to preserve the sanctity of the message and ensure their appeal to a fresh audience. Perhaps a similar turn of events is occurring in the folk/Americana tradition (the most closely related musical cousin to the written/oral narrative) with new blood like Nathan and its label mates, Old Crow Medicine Show (though OCMS is more steeped in traditional songs than Nathan). These acts are attempting to take the doctrines of songwriters and artists who came before them and alter the method of communication ever so slightly, translating them for a generation seeking authenticity from their art. Key Principles suggests the members of Nathan have both the talent and the vision to assume a leadership role in this effort.