[3 September 2014]
World, meet what is possibly the heir to Joni Mitchell’s crown in the form of Toronto singer-songwriter Jennifer Castle. Jennifer Castle, meet the world. Pink City, Castle’s technically sophomore album, though she released two albums previously under the Castlemusic moniker, is a knock-out. Surrounding herself with the likes of Owen Pallett, who provides provides string arrangements for a number of songs, including “Truth is the Freshest Fruit” and “Like a Gun”, and American folk musician Kath Bloom, who plays harmonica on “Down River”, Pink City is a consistently engaging effort.
It’s apt that the record is called Pink City for if Castle’s music conjures a certain color, it is, indeed, pink. This is the stuff of cotton candy and deep sunsets, and is consistently fresh and exciting. But as much as Castle comes across as her own personality, there are moments on the disc where she sounds like a dead ringer for Mitchell during that singer’s early ‘70s heyday. Pink City is a record of folksy and orchestrated rubies, and engages the listener with each successive pass and holds up to the scrutiny of a jeweler’s magnifying glass. With a voice that is soft and lush, Castle’s songs reach for the heavens and offer a very mature honesty.
The appeal of Castle’s music lies in her vocal trills, which resemble Mitchell’s. Castle’s throat catches during “Working for the Man” and when she reaches for the high notes, it is, indeed, like hearing the second coming of Joni. Opener “Truth Is the Freshest Fruit” goes much further than aping the singer-songwriter movement of the past; it reaches for ‘60s pop. In particular, it resembles, lyrically, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”: “Golden Gates / San Francisco / Let your / Yellow Hair / Down.” The song starts out just with Castle’s plain voice and an acoustic guitar, but Pallett’s strings soon swoop down and the tune becomes flush with orchestration, building up and up to an emotional climax.
“Sparta” shows another side of Castle’s musical personality. As it begins, it sounds like just about any countrified number with pedal steel, but what makes it unique is the presence of a lilting flute. The appearance of that non-country of instruments offers a startling surprise, much in the same way that the emergence of a piano on “Truth Is the Freshest Fruit” is completely unexpected, and wallops you upside the head. However, there’s an unvarnished honesty to these songs, too. “Down River” offers the line, “Had to slay a dragon just to clear my throat,” and then she does exactly that in an endearing way. (Clear her throat, that is.) The song is also appealing in that it closely resembles something Neil Young might have done around Harvest, just with the vocal cadence of Mitchell.
I know, I know. I’m making a big deal about Castle sounding a lot like Mitchell, but the resemblance on many of these songs are astonishing. What more, Mitchell may just be arguably the most important female vocalist and songwriter of the late 20th century, so for Castle to effectively nail the influence is amazing and real, considering that it seems doubtful we’ll get another album out of the recluse these days. “How Or Why” is also mesmerizing in that it sounds a great deal like Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot during his early ‘70s excursion into syrupy pop. You would think that the track is a cover version, as Castle so effectively conveys the influence in her songwriting. What’s also very intriguing is that the song values close listening: there are sound effects in the background that amplify the meaning of the lyrics. For instance, when Castle sings, “Left the meal on the table,” you can actually hear the clank of silverware being set deep in the mix. In that sense, the music becomes a literal backing to Castle’s lyricism.
“Broken Vase”, which immediately follows, is startling in the sense that there are cellos lending a very baroque feel to the proceedings, and shows that Castle is above being just another folkie with an acoustic guitar and confessional lyrics. Just about everything about Pink City is meant to be digested and scrutinized in excoriating detail. There is just so much going on here that it is impossible to catch everything on a mere first pass.
I’m not the only one to note the comparison to Mitchell, and, to be true, Pink City is no Blue, which would be unfair to contrast this album to, as Blue is one of the most important records to emanate from the Great White North. Still, Pink City more than stands on its own, and reveals itself over time to be an important statement from a truly talented voice. When Castle sings on the title track that, “I’ve found new romance at last,” you cannot help but be overjoyed, not only for the sense of her happiness, but the pure pleasure that listening to this album conveys.
Pink City is an important and crucial album of folk rock, one that nudges into classical music territory with its strings, and showcases that Castle is a fine emerging talent in the slick Toronto scene. There is plenty of fresh fruit on the record, and it is an astonishing showstopper. One cannot get enough of the subtle pleasures of this album, and it is a thing of true breathtaking beauty. While Castle may not be quite a new talent, as she now has four albums under her belt, one can only hope that this is the one that breaks her to a wider audience willing to share in the true talent of her vocal prowess and songwriting.
True, Castle may be something of a stand in for Joni Mitchell, she more than aptly shows that she’s a true follower of an iconic musician, and one can only hope that, in 40 years time, we’re talking about Pink City in the same hushed tones reversed for albums as beautiful and awe inspiring as those in Mitchell’s bountiful and challenging canon. Pink City is a real winner, and listeners will be swayed by its gentle beauty, all obvious comparisons that may seem pertinent be damned.