[6 March 2014]
Fellow PopMatters reviewer Darryl G. Wright, in appraising Wake Owl’s debut 2013 EP, Wild Country, wrote some words in his piece that turned out to be extremely prophetic: “When Wake Owl do release a full length record, I expect it will be very, very well received.” Well, it’s now a year later, and Wake Owl have fulfilled their promise with a full length that is, in a word, astonishing. Wake Owl is the work of one man named Colyn Cameron who splits his time between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Oregon – though, on his debut full-length as Wake Owl, The Private World of Paradise, he employs the talents of multi-instrumentalist Aiden Briscall to flesh things out. Even before the release of this album, Wake Owl has been building a boatload of hype known really only to those in the music industry in Canada, or those closely following Canadian music: the “band”, if you want to call it that, has been recently nominated for Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the 2014 Juno Awards, Canada’s answer to the Grammy Awards, and the Junos will be doled out towards the end of March. It is somewhat strange that Wake Owl is even nominated in this category: I’d be hard pressed to name an average household person who even knows who this outfit is. Still, it probably doesn’t matter.
The Private World of Paradise turns out to be an album that is so perfect that it’s the kind of thing you want to hold dear against your chest and not share with anyone else. However, The Private World of Paradise is really the kind of album that necessarily needs to be shared with as many people as possible. While the Wild Country EP drew comparisons to Mumford & Sons and the Tallest Man on Earth, this full length is more full-bodied and rockist. It is easily compared to most indie rock of a certain fashion, but opening song “Days in the Sea” may draw comparisons to the Beach Boys, and, elsewhere, you might find yourself grasping for comparisons to ‘70s soft rock. The song “Candy”, to these ears, has a passing resemblance, at least in feel, to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”.
The thing about The Private World of Paradise is that it conjures up the work of fellow Canadian Mac DeMarco, if not in sound, then in the sheer effortless of the way these songs ebb and flow. I got the same chills listening to this Wake Owl album that I did from DeMarco’s excellent 2. There’s something distinctly off kilter with both artists, though Wake Owl exudes a nostalgic wistfulness that differentiates him from the previous musician. The album is dripping with disco-era strings, though there’s a clear ‘60s pop sensibility to the proceedings as well. The record, too, is a study in contrasts: The album is practically bookended with two different versions of “Candy”. The first is a paean to ‘70s soul, while the latter is much more jarring, opening with white noise, before entering into a more stripped-down version of the song that brings to the fore its more funk sensibilities. What’s more, Cameron wears his heart on his sleeve profoundly. On the soft, lulling “Kid”, he nervously exudes: “I was just a kid / With all my heart to give”, before acknowledging, “Shit, I’m really scared”, evoking the frayed nature of adolescence in all of its painfulness. On the following track, “Oh Baby”, Cameron practically sneers, “I was kind of feeling insecure” before braying “I fucked with your mind, silly girl / Oh baby, I didn’t have to ride the wave”, feeling an emotion that’s entirely relatable to anyone in a tumultuous relationship.
However, the album’s clear strength is in the sheer musicianship. The album centerpiece and highlight “Madness of Others”, starts out with a lurching drum track before a liquid acoustic, folksy guitar fingerpickiness enters the fray, stabbed with the pulsating throb of strings. However, the strings really come to the fray in the latter half of the song, feeling utterly cinematic and haunting. This is where the chills might start running down your back. The song, as a whole, the longest thing on the album at five minutes plus, just builds to an emotional crescendo, one that reaches a climatic breaking point, where tears might start dripping down your face. But the album, as a whole, if not reaching the pinnacle of that moment, is just stuffed to the gills with tuneful, somewhat experimental, but always musical songs that sear themselves on your heart. The lo-fi “Untitled” glistens with an almost girl group sound. “Desert Flowers” is punctuated with a guitar that sounds more like a sitar, against a chillwave-esque keyboard line. And “Letters” makes its case for being a lost Elvis Presley song.
There’s hardly a fault with The Private World of Paradise. It is, very nearly, a perfect album, and the only thing holding it back might be the repetition of the song “Candy”, though making that kind of quip is like saying that “Treefingers” is the weakest song on Kid A – a statement that feels unnecessary and one guaranteed to earn scorn and derision from the chin-stroking hipster cognoscenti. This album is a valentine towards music that is pure and good, and one that encompasses a broad spectrum of not only feelings, but musical styles. There’s a real sense of growth and progression here, but, simply put, The Private World of Paradise is one of those records that is basically grand. No, check that. This is a beyond excellent album, one that could have a person flipping through the thesaurus for additional superlatives. But to be blunter, this disc is not only one of the guaranteed greatest releases from a Canadian this year, but pretty much any nationality. It is a sterling and definitive statement of an artist at the peak of his powers, and it more than adequately conveys a longing, a sense of the past, a nostalgia. They really don’t make records like this anymore, and that’s what makes this such a treat.
There is nary a deceitful emotion or duff track to be found anywhere, anywhere on The Private World of Paradise. In short, I really hope that Wake Owl earns the Juno for breakthrough artist. Though not for the reasons the awards committee might not expect. The Wild Country EP is said to be quite good, but The Private World of Paradise is Wake Owl’s (and Cameron’s) breakthrough artistic statement. This is a staggeringly mature and confident record, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Polaris didn’t come calling, too. This is just the best record to be released in some time that this reviewer is aware of, and it seems so genuine and heartfelt. Darryl G. Wright was right (pardon the pun) about one thing: this is an album that will be well received by anyone fortunate enough to hear it, and that EP he reviewed was just but a taster of the greatness that was to come. That greatness is gloriously wrapped up in the tidy treat that is The Private World of Paradise, clearly one of the best albums of this young year so far.