Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield guest stars as a vocalist on Gryner’s 10th studio album, bolstering this from being just another indie release from a Canada cult icon.
Emm Gryner is something of a Canadian cult icon. Despite being briefly signed to Mercury Records in the late ‘90s, being nominated three times for Canada’s answer to the Grammy Awards, the Junos (twice for Best Pop Album), and playing keyboards and singing backup vocals in David Bowie’s band (probably her greatest claim to fame in some circles), Gryner is stoutly independent, releasing records on her own label, Dead Daisy Records. After releasing a Best Of album a couple years ago, Gryner is up to studio album No. 10 in her career with the release of her latest, Torrential. And she’s roped in some big name help for it. She actually had a hand in collaborating with now retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield when he partially recorded the world’s first music video shot in outer space for a reading of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, which naturally went viral all over the Web. Well, Hadfield returns the favour on this album, singing a duet with Gryner on “So Easy”, the centerpiece track on Torrential. But more on that later.
A lot has changed for Gryner in the intervening years. She’s become a mother for one (she now has two children), a move that informs some of the themes of this long player. According to the press release, Gryner quips, “Everyone hears about women losing themselves to motherhood but there is more at stake than I expected – mental health, the toll on your body, the separation from your love and art. The constant questioning. The album is about all of those struggles. Complicated by no sleep.” While the theme is a fairly subtle one, you get the sense that perhaps the stakes have been raised for Gryner, who might be looking for something akin to a hit – or the closest thing you can have to a hit when you’re as fiercely independent and determined as her. The whole thing, though, takes its time in warming up to the listener. It opens with “Pioneer”, which might as well be the first single as it is what Gryner chose to make a video for. Played on a World War One-era mandolin and recorded to an iPad, it’s a bit of a strange way to open the album: it’s a giddy song, and perhaps a touch too silly. But, with repeated listens, you get used to it. By the fourth listen, I found it hard not to tap my toe to it, despite my initial reservations. It still is a bit hokey, but at least it begins the record on what is a positively sounding note.
“Purge”, meanwhile, finds Gryner at her bitchiest: dropping an f-bomb, the bitch word and “bullshit”, it’s an infectious blast of pop from the Meredith Brooks school of songwriting. There’s a touch of Todd Rundgren-esque blue eyed soul to the proceedings, and musically could have come out of some period of the ‘70s – there is even what appears to be a Rhodes keyboard on the song. But what might be the album’s most affecting track comes one song later: “Math Wiz”. This is Gryner at her most longing: against a gently plucked acoustic guitar, she sings, “One and one make two / I miss you / Sue me if that sounds a little weak.” True, there’s a bit of “roses are red” simplicity to the lyrics, but it is still a profoundly moving and weepy tune that might have you reaching for the box of Kleenex. But the album’s most memorable track comes with “So Easy”, of course, for the mere presence of Hadfield. He more than holds his own, with his gravelly voice providing a sense of world (or out of this world) weariness. Plus, Hadfield is probably a candidate for the coolest Canadian ever, given his penchant for covering Bowie in space. Just having him on this album is something of a major coup for Gryner, but given the work she provided for him in space, he’s gleefully and gladly providing a bit of star power (pardon the outer space pun) here.
When all is said and done, Torrential is a strong if not wholly surprising pop record from the likes of Gryner. It ends with a piano ballad, “End of Me”, which would be the kind of song that you would instantly get sick of if mainstream, modern radio picked it up. But the thing is, radio will not pick it up given Gryner’s status as a maverick outside of the system. So you can pretty much play this album with as much abandon as you want and make it your own without someone else shoving it down your throat. There’s plenty of prettiness and tiny fragility to be had here, whether it be the music box stylings of “What Fighters Do” or the finger picked nimbleness of “Mammoth Ache”. The more time you spend with Torrential, the easier it is to be taken aback by it. As far as statements from female singer-songwriters go, and Canadian ones at that, this is a particularly strong entry in the genre and field. While Gryner may be best known as a major label also-ran and someone who is probably best known for her collaborations with other artists, if not astronauts, Torrential shows that even 10 records into her career, Gryner still has a voice and something to sing about. Let’s just hope that, based on what she’s so effortlessly delivered here that she still has another 10 studio LPs still left in the tank.