[14 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ottawa’s Jim Bryson isn’t exactly a known quantity outside of his Canadian hometown, but he’s certainly racked up the accolades and collaborations over the past decade as a recording artist. He’s worked extensively with fellow Ottawa singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards, who has recorded a song about Bryson entitled “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”, which is kind of self-explanatory. He has also worked with a raft of other Canadian bands and musicians including Lynn Miles, Sarah Harmer and the Tragically Hip, the latter of which doesn’t get much bigger when you’re considering the Canadian music scene. In Ottawa, where I live, Bryson is revered as a solid, dependable songwriter with folk and alt-country flourishes. I happened to catch the tail end of his performance with his latest backing band, Winnipeg indie rock act the Weakerthans, at the Ottawa Folk Festival this past summer. The beachside park where the band was performing was packed to the gills. I don’t know for sure how many people were there, but let’s just say a lot. In fact, it may just be that Bryson is such a calling card that when he left the stage to make room for that night’s headlining act, Calexico, he took about three-quarters of the audience with him. Maybe it was getting late, and people wanted to get home on a chilly Saturday night in August, but it does say a lot when you outdraw such an excellent headliner as that.
With his latest album, Bryson teamed up with the Weakerthans, which may seem puzzling on paper, as the latter doesn’t have anything on the quiet grace of the former. However, Canada being the small country it is in a music-scene sense, both artists have met up with each other on the road, and the topic of doing something together came up. This was particularly advantageous to Bryson, as recording an album in Manitoba would expose him to further provincial arts grants that could fund his muse. This album is also a bit of an expedition in a way, beyond travelling to another province to record, as it refers to a bizarre “incident” in Canadian ufology folklore, according to an article about the album that appeared in the National Post. In May 1967, Stefan Michalak, a Winnipeg resident, was quartz prospecting near Manitoba’s Falcon Lake when he looked to the sky and saw a pair of UFOs. A cigar-shaped object approached him, landed, and essentially made contact with the befuddled prospector. When the UFOs left, Michalak was covered with burns all over his body, leaving behind a mystery filed with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that nobody has been able to solve to this very day.
To that end, Bryson and his companions retreated to the very same lake to record this album in the depths of this past January, probably hoping to capture some of the weird vibes such a folk story like that has to offer up. They rented a pair of cabins – one to record in, and one to hang out in – and put together the record during a two-week span that offered such diversions as ice fishing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. According to Weakerthans singer John K. Samson, the album’s laconic feel is a direct result of that laid-back atmosphere. “It was shift work, in a sense,” he told the National Post. “Come in, spend a couple of hours doing things and try to be quiet during takes. But you can hear some chatter on some of the tracks. You can hear some cooking sounds on there, too.”
“It was professional, yet very casual,” Bryson says of the recording process, in an interview with Spinner Canada. “We had fires, and there would be these tame deer staring in through the windows while we were recording. If somebody wasn’t there, they were either still in bed in another cabin, or on snow shoes or cross-country skiing.”
Bryson, who has a voice that has a passing resemblance to Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor, isn’t the only Ottawa artist to make the trek to the country to record in a cabin. The Acorn recorded their latest album in the wilds of Quebec to similar effect. The end result here though is something that could have only been recorded in the middle of the cold Canadian winter in rural isolation. The Falcon Lake Incident is, for the most part, a hushed affair, a portrait of relationships filtered through Bryson’s gifts as a storyteller of the finest calibre. Fans of the Weakerthans will be disappointed to learn that they have very little to contribute insofar as their signature sound. This is pretty much a Bryson affair, with the Weakerthans hired guns to back his acoustic, alt-country leaning strumming. In fact, it isn’t until about the end of track four (“Wild Folk”) that some of their fire comes into play. Then there’s nothing until track seven (“Up All Night”) of this 10-song collection that you hit a song that remotely sounds like their raucous sound, which is not to speak of some background cacophony that you hear in the final cut, “Anything and All”. What’s more, even if this is a relatively quiet album, it’s not so quiet that you can hear the sounds of voices and dinner being prepared, as alluded to by Samson. I’ve listened to this record on my iPod and while you can hear a bit of bedroom recording tape hiss that’s warm and inviting, The Falcon Lake Incident more or less strikes a middle ground between lullabies, such as the quick and dirty, one minute and thirty-second opener “Raised All Wrong” and mid-tempo Wilco-esque rave-ups such as “Metal Girls”, whose title furthers the connection to those alt-country gods. That’s probably the album’s only major misstep, too, though it has a lot of toe-tapping catchiness and an infectious “bah bah bah’s” near song’s end. Still, its hint of “Heavy Metal Drummer” and similar lyrical concerns of trying to fit in with women who are as different from you as oil is to water make it veer a bit close to a liberally borrowed idea.
There’s nothing here, too, to support the reasoning behind naming the album over the Stefan Michalak case, though Bryson applies some revisionist thought to this in his interview with the National Post: “[The incident] didn’t inform the record, but you can listen to a song like “Raised All Wrong” and think—‘that’s [Michalak] for sure.’ ” That’s a bit of a reach unless you consider, “You can search all night in a night full of sky ... / you never had to get away from anything like this before” to be related to a UFO sighting. What is for sure is that this record has its sights aimed like a telescope to the ceiling of the earth. From the album cover depicting a starry night sky right down to the lyric sheet, there is an infatuation with the heavens that gives the record an underlying dreamy theme. “Fell Off the Dock” opens with “they shoot at the birds / and howled at the moon”, while later “Kissing Cousins” offers “we’ll lay [sic] in the grass under the moon and the stars over the water tower”. The song, and probably the album’s highlight in a sea of highlights, “Constellation” is a sketch of ordinary people who “slept under constellations scattered in all kinds of combinations”. Lyrically there are a few awkward moments, primarily “and we pissed in the weeds but not the flowers / so they could pollinate and watch each other grow by the hours” in “Kissing Cousins”. Thankfully, such moments are few and far between.
The Falcon Lake Incident is firmly in both the folk and country-ish vein of James Taylor, with a dash of heartland rock a la John Hiatt. Much of the material is soft and introspective, aside from the occasional rocker like “Up All Night”. However, it is “Constellation” which might be the most breathtaking moment to be found here, as it is a slow-burning ballad with a soaring trumpet line that is both wistful and longing. Almost as equally captivating is the opening track “Raised all Wrong”, an acoustic ballad that’s tender and affirming. All in all, there’s not a throwaway to be found.
There’s a review of The Falcon Lake Incident online at Chart Attack which concludes, “These aren’t the sort of songs you should listen to alone; they’re meant for times of interaction.” I agree with that assessment to a degree, though I will say that the album does make for nice listening before going to bed. The social interaction I’m thinking of is dinner parties. This album makes for a great appetizer before a potluck, with social chatter to augment the lazy nature of the songs. At just a hair over a half hour long, The Falcon Lake Incident is actually perfectly timed. It’s not too long to wear out its welcome, and not so short that it feels inconsequential. The record actually gets better upon repeated listens, like an onion that one can unpeel to reveal different layers, with different songs leaping out at you, even if “Constellations” is a bit of a stand-out.
This is surprising considering this was an album fairly quickly thrown together over the course of a couple weeks, as Bryson notes in an interview with Spinner Canada about the song “Wild Folk”: “We finished it and just kept going, and then had to make sense of what we played because we’d never played it before. So it was listening and figuring out this end we made off the floor ... [to] make it actually functional.” Still, for all of its loose togetherness, this is an album made by a bunch of guys being laidback and having fun. In the end, it just makes it that much more fun to listen to.