Exile proves that McGrath deserves something more: a rabid following of many devotees who sing along with every pointed word and buy his albums with no reservations.
Over the course of the past year or so, Toronto's Eamon McGrath has released three EPs, and the unveiling of the third EP happens to coincide with the bowing of an LP that collects all nine songs from the works titled Exile. When you listen to the proper album, you would be surprised that all of these songs were spread out across shorter EPs, as the record does seem whole and unified. McGrath is also noteworthy as he taps into a vein of Canadian indie rock that takes its cues from Bruce Springsteen. In the same way that the Constantines’ Shine a Light is oft described as Fugazi meets the Boss, that Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” is basically a Springsteen pastiche, that the Arkells mines you-know-who’s hooks for piano bangers, McGrath is the one Canadian artist who remotely sounds like Springsteen. The vocal resemblance is uncanny, just without the references to New Jersey. The press release accompanying this disc even goes so far as to compare the song “Enterprise” to Nebraska. However, McGrath also straddles the line between folk rock and punk, as the soft stuff is gently strummed and the loud stuff rages with unbridled enthusiasm. That he’s able to make this all sound as wrapped up as he does is a testament to his songwriting abilities.
While titling your album Exile might draw immediate comparisons to the Rolling Stones, the music contained within is about as hard-nosed and blue collar as it comes. Full of bracing rockers and tough-as-nails acoustic ballads, this is an album that you’ll want to raise your fist in the air and yell to. It’s also an album that is unabashedly about the country McGrath resides in. There are two songs here with Canada referenced in the titles: “History of Canadian Music” and “Canadian Shield”. Toronto looms in the lyrics as well. Speaking of lyrics, the album seamlessly weaves itself into something tantalizingly sequenced. “History of Canadian Music” offers “There’s no shortcuts, and no straight lines,” as its final words, but on the next track, “Canadian Shield”, McGrath opens with, “There’s a straight line heading northwest that goes nowhere.” “Canadian Shield” is also interesting musically as it does, indeed, reference a History of Canadian Music: there’s a guitar lick that is eerily reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”. There’s quite a bit to sink your teeth into with Exile, and even after repeated listens, you keep coming across tantalizing surprises that carry you away in terms of how the album is constructed as something bona fide. It’s hard to image Exile as a series of EPs that just happened to be collected into album form.
If you come to Exile expecting great songs, there’s much here to warrant its purchase. “Enduring Love” features a beaten and bruised chorus of male voices singing along. Both “Running from the Cops” and “Enterprise” offer the ragged glory of folksy material that still boasts sweat and swagger. “Bitter Ends”, the opening track, is a nice, off-the-cuff rocker that serves as the disc’s one song that will definitely slink into the tape machine of the mind, endlessly replaying itself when you least expect it. The title track is also a churning rocker with a lead guitar that floats like a butterfly while the rhythm guitars sting like a bee. “Enduring Love” acutely and appealingly speaks to the experience of middle age: “Reached the point that’s past halfway / Then it’s all downhill.” And while the record doesn’t really boast a track that is as instantly memorable as “Young Canadians” from the 2012 album of the same name, Exile does seem a logical next step for McGrath in making a suite of songs that can be cut up and divided or work together as their own entity. It does feel short: at just nine songs long, compared to the 12 cuts of Young Canadians, the record floats by like a breeze. Still, there’s enough balance between brains and brawn to make Exile a remarkable listening experience.
McGrath is still somewhat of an unknown entity, even in his home country. His records have been independently released, and the usually robust AllMusic.com doesn’t have a bio on him, and instead just lists a few of his albums without offering reviews. So McGrath has his work cut out for him to connect with an audience, for sure. Still, he’s a talent to watch out for, and should Springsteen need to call in sick for one of his scheduled live performances, I know the guy to take his place. And while McGrath doesn’t write character sketches in the way that Springsteen does, at least not here, there’s a poetic and romantic nature to his songs that are tough. If Charles Bukowski had ever fronted a rock band during his lifetime, McGrath’s muse would hew closely to that poet’s. Plus, McGrath’s music sounds uniquely Canadian, with its references to the snow and the cold, and that’s something to embrace, mainly because so many Canadian artists of yore (and even of today – Justin Bieber, anyone?) tend to sing of the universal experience to better connect with an international audience. McGrath wears his heart and his country’s pride on his sleeve. For that, he commands the greatest respect, and, with an ounce of luck, his music won’t be exiled to a small audience for long. Exile proves that McGrath deserves something more: a rabid following of many devotees who sing along with every pointed word and buy his albums with no reservations.