American-Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider ropes in other Canadian musicians to write songs for her to wildly varying results.
Suzie Ungerleider, who performs under the stage name Oh Susanna, is somewhat well known in Canada, and her catalogue stretches back into the late 1990s. She was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, but raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and now calls Toronto home. Her latest project, though, is a departure for Ungerleider. Namedropper is an album of covers of fellow Canadian musicians, but not one of the songs on the record has been previously released. Instead, the songs were specifically written for her to record and perform.
Initially, Namedropper was going to be a traditional covers album, but her producer, Jim Bryson, suggested that others write the songs with her in mind. And Namedropper would have come out earlier, perhaps in 2013, but Ungerleider, unfortunately, was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed some time to recover. However, Namedropper is finally here and it boasts practically a who’s who in Canadian music. The songwriters include Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, Ron Sexsmith (who penned a song with Angaleena Presley), Joel Plaskett, Bryson, Old Man Luedecke, Luke Doucet and others. You could say that Namedropper is a celebration of a Canadian-American talent, contributed to by other Canadian talents.
What’s most surprising about Namedropper is that, aside from a reference to trendy Toronto restaurant Sneaky Dee’s, it appears to be something that could help Ungerleider make inroads into the United States. The US mail is mentioned, along with an “Uncle Sam", and there’s even a song titled “Oregon”. It’s a bit baffling that all of these Canadians would want to write about America, which essentially sets the clock back to 1970, when the Guess Who were singing about an “American Woman” just to get a hit south of the border, but maybe they just wanted to celebrate Ungerleider's birth heritage.
Anyhow, Namedropper is relatively consistent as an album even though it is made up of songs from other people. This would be a testament to Ungerleider’s power to unify the songs and sequence them in a way that makes this more an album rather than a random collection. Granted, you will get the lingering feeling that the Canadian artists who contributed here didn't necessarily turn in their best material. While there’s an altruistic feel to the disc, consider this: if you were a recording artist, and you had a really crackerjack song, would you want to give it away or keep it for yourself? Chance are, you might opt for the latter route, so that means that Namedropper does drop its share of duds, particularly in the last half of the album. Still, the collection is well-served, and is, at least, an interesting experiment. One could knock that Bryson’s production does seem thin and unflattering at times, but this is a quibble considering that Ungerleider is a consummate talent and, of course, you don’t want to appear critical in the least given the fact that she appears to be a cancer survivor.
So what works on Namedropper? First single “Mozart for the Cat” is a hooky pop song boasting a silly and absurd chorus of “It’s champagne for the children, Mozart for the cat” that will make inroads into the pleasure centers of your brain. The album generally succeeds on some of the lighter numbers, as the production is the most suitable here. “Cottonseed” is a gentle piano ballad that drips with the kind of melancholy that Karen Carpenter used to specialize in. Final track “I Love the Way She Dresses”, another ballad, is pretty, fragile, and ornate. “Provincial Parks” is also memorable in that it’s just a female and male harmony vocal backed against a hesitant piano. Close your eyes and you’ll be able to practically see the sheet music for this float before you. However, the album does trip up on some of the upbeat rockers: “Into My Arms” feels slight and empty, even though it boasts an appropriately jangly guitar riff. “Savings and Loan” has a head-scratching lyric in the form of “I hopped up on the barber’s chair / I said, I’m losing the mustache and the three-week old beard." But the worst offender is the simply nonsensical “1955”, which has a refrain of “You love’s like suicide / 19 and 55.” Say wha? There seems to be no connection there.
Still, while Namedropper hits and misses at roughly the same ratio, it is an appealing concept, and you have to give credit to Ungerleider for being able to rope in enough Canadian acts to fill a 14-song record, even though some of those 14 songs could have been easily lopped off. Although the disc has its share of American references, it is a celebration of Canadian talent, and since Canada isn't exactly a nation known to toot its own horn -- instead being the sort of quiet, friendly country that people turn to in terms of putting a flag on their backpacks while travelling abroad because they know if they do so, they’ll be treated well -- this is a welcome project. And while the record does boast star power, there’s bound to be a few acts that you might not have previously heard of, so the album goes a long way towards promoting underground Canadian culture. And Ungerleider’s voice is a pleasure to hear, as it is both seductive and innocent at the same time.
All in all, Namedropper might not be an out-of-the-ballpark smash, but it is broadly alluring and a simply nice LP to snap up and share. While it’s not as artistically rendered as something created by one entity, it’s intriguing to hear how the material by others is handled by Ungerleider and how this is tracked to make a full-length. So Namedropper is certainly pleasing, and should go a long way towards appeasing fans of Oh Susanna while they wait expectantly for the next album, presumably one that will show the artist return to her own songwriting roots. Since she has had a tough uphill battle and fight these past couple of years, it’ll be fascinating to see what topicality gets weaved out of that. For the time being, Namedropper is the stop gap. Nothing more. Nothing less.