Ian Tyson: Raven Singer

Canadian music legend Ian Tyson delivers a new collection of songs at 78 years young. However, your appreciation of the material will hinge how much of the fact that Tyson’s voice has been robbed of much of its vitality you can stomach.

Ian Tyson

Raven Singer

Label: Stony Plain
US Release Date: 2012-05-29
UK Release Date: 2012-06-18
Label website
Artist website

To those who aren’t familiar with the nearly six-decades-long career of Canada’s Ian Tyson, it might seem like hyperbole to say that Tyson is Canada’s ultimate musical legend. It isn’t. Without Tyson, there very well might not be a Canadian music industry. No Gordon Lightfoot (who Tyson mentored in Lightfoot’s early years), no Neil Young, no Joni Mitchell. Perhaps no Juno Awards and no Polaris Prise. Maybe no Arcade Fire for that matter, either. Ian Tyson, as one half of the early ‘60s folk duo Ian and Sylvia, wrote what could be considered to be Canada’s first pop anthem in “Four Strong Winds”, a timeless song that feels much older than it actually is and seems almost "traditional" somehow. It’s a song that has, among listeners of a certain age, become something of a Canadian treasure: the unofficial national anthem, if you will. CBC Radio listeners named it as Canada’s No. 1 song of the 20th Century, and rightfully so. In my mind, “Four Strong Winds” could very well just be really the start of Canadian pop music: an iconic song that marks the beginning of a fledgling national music industry in much the same way that “Rock Around the Clock” is generally considered to be the official start of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural phenomenon in America. I can't think of a single popular song in Canada written by a Canadian predating "Four Strong Winds" that had such a profound impact on the nation's psyche. (Not counting "O Canada", of course.) Really, if you’re a young, struggling Canadian musician (or even a music fan) and meet Tyson walking down the streets of Alberta, his home province, you pretty much owe him the shirt off your back for what he did with that one song.

However, Tyson’s career isn’t just limited to “Four Strong Winds” and his songwriting and romantic partnership with Sylvia Fricker (whom he eventually married and then later divorced). With Sylvia, he was part of a group called Great Speckled Bird that helped to pioneer a country-rock fusion sound alongside the likes of Gram Parsons. He was the host of his own Canadian variety musical TV show in the early ‘70s. And that's not all. He’s recently penned an autobiography and has three honorary Doctorates. He's also a member of the Order of Canada. And, aside from his career as a musician, he additionally has been a rancher for much of his life, making him something of a modern-day cowboy. Clearly, even though Tyson is now 78 years old, he has had a robust, varied and rich career, and has been oft covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Young. And now, Tyson returns to the stage with his 14th album of solo material. The dude is certainly not showing any signs of resting on his laurels as he enters his twilight years, though that might be a bit troubling considering some of the adversity he’s pulled through recently. You see, Tyson has lost his singing voice after he damaged his vocal cords at an outdoor music festival in 2006 where he was playing against a bass-heavy and loud soundboard, and his pipes were further strained by a lengthy bout of the flu he endured the following year. That makes listening to Tyson’s newest release, Raven Singer, a bit of a challenge for listeners.

While musically the album is a dazzling country album with flashes of rock here and there, as well as the presence of traditional instruments such as the bagpipes, as heard on “Blueberry Susan”, it is also hard to sometimes listen to with Tyson’s so-called “new voice” leading the fore. At times, Tyson comes off as sounding like Leonard Cohen after a nightlong alcoholic bender, and much of his vitality has been robbed: here, he doesn’t just sound like he’s 78; he sometimes sounds as though he’s virtually on his deathbed with a gravelly rasp and rattle that barely holds his compositions together. He even sings at one point here that “I am damaged cargo” without much irony. Listeners might be of two minds about this: on one hand, you can certainly appreciate and applaud Tyson’s decision to keep making music and singing songs as he’s always done, bum voice or no, and delight in the fact that the man is rising to the challenges that life has thrown his way recently with a certain kind of understated grace. However, on the other hand, you have to worry a bit about Tyson and whether or not his decision to keep singing, even on a new register, might damage himself even further, and the thought will probably cross your mind listening to Raven Singer, as it did mine, that Tyson would be better served moving into a new musical partnership with a vocalist who can handle the demands of performing, and let him just rest his vox a bit and focus more squarely on his guitar playing instead. Indeed, by the time you get to the album’s final track, the instrumental “The Yellow Dress”, you find yourself feeling glad that he’s chosen to give his voice a chance to recover.

Still, if you can get past Tyson’s haggard pipes, Raven Singer has a lot to offer in terms of seemingly autobiographical detail and character sketches. The aforementioned “Blueberry Susan” is about Tyson’s songwriting mentors and influences, and people he’s played with that have now passed on. Here, he bellygazes at his own mortality by noting that “someday we may meet again / out among the stars.” Meanwhile, “Saddle Bronc Girl” is a painting of a head-strong woman who works the rodeo and rides a bronco cheekily named “No GST” (a not-so-subtle dig at the federal sales tax in Canada) and, elsewhere, Tyson turns his attention to more worldly pursuits, such as “Rio Colorado”, where he gets a chance to ride the white water rapids of the titular river on a new horse, “Under African Skies”, which recounts an encounter with a lover in Morocco, and the Jimmy Buffet sound-a-like “Back to Baja”, which is a love letter to a town in Mexico. The songs themselves, while not overly flashy, are a welcome balm from the traditional New Country music dominating the airwaves about getting drunk, chasing women and fixing your pick-up. There’s a certain maturity to Tyson’s songs, well in keeping with his age, and they feel like they could have come out of any era of country music from the past 30 years or so. In fact, there’s a certain amount of vividness to this material in that, on strictly musical terms, it holds up against much of Tyson’s younger brethren very well. Raven Singer isn’t the sound of a musician trying to capitalize on past glories in so much as trying to sound almost contemporary, and, by and large, it works.

Still, Raven Singer is a bit of a hard album to critically appraise, for the tricky business of Tyson’s lost voice mentioned above. Music should move people and entertain them in equal measure, and it is a bit hard to be entertained by Tyson here as he struggles to wheeze out his lyrics. For that reason, Raven Singer is probably best suited to long-time fans who can look past Tyson’s new vocal range and simply be satisfied to have new music from Canada’s preeminent musical marvel. New fans whom are curious about Tyson’s work might be better served, sad to say, by starting at the very beginning of his Ian and Sylvia roots and move forward from there. Raven Singer, you see, seems to be a portrait of an icon whom is now a mere husk of what he once was. The songs are generally solid, but that once booming voice is now shaky and barely there. Raven Singer isn’t a pathetic record by any stretch, but it is a bit sad to listen to, realizing that Tyson’s glory days and glorious voice are now well behind him. He still has the ability to spin a good yarn, but in a very wispy fashion. If you can overlook the fact that Tyson, though he still tries to be youthful in his old age, is simply a victim of the sands of time, Raven Singer will offer a bounty for you. However, what people will remember Tyson for is probably not how he rode out into the sunset, but for a few strong winds he penned very early on in his career. For that, perhaps Tyson has simply earned the right to do whatever he darn well pleases, awkward voice be damned, and Raven Singer is just ultimately proof of that.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.