This album has been sitting around with me for a while, as I struggled to get a handle on it to begin with. I think I had a notion that Cam Penner was one of those heavily bearded rootsy performers who would deliver something raw - lots of foot-stomping and yelping, I thought. Well, by his own account, this self-produced album sees him striking out in a fresh direction, and though the folk roots still show through strongly there is so much depth and sophistication in this production that it takes many listens to hear how this tapestry of sound all fits together.
The focus of each song tends to start on Cam's voice with his intimate, yet straightforward, delivery; there is great sincerity in his voice and he tends to sound like he's having a private conversation with you, confessing his innermost thoughts whilst in that late evening contemplative mood. This draws you in, and whilst you're figuring out where he's going with his tale, you become aware that the band around him have constructed a great web of sound, each instrument a voice that echoes some aspect of the lyric. This can become intense, though never quite on the Arcade Fire scale of intensity; Cam never has to shout and scream above the maelstrom, and the heart of the music remains personal and intimate - folk music, in fact. What does happen, time and again, is that you feel surprised at where you've been led, each song becoming broader and deeper in its scope than you could imagine from the opening bars. Nowhere does he stretch himself further from conventional folk idiom than on My Lover and I. I confess to almost complete ignorance of dance music but this sounds pretty much like drum'n'bass to me: an urgent drum pattern drives things along and Cam chants along with the rhythm sounding as cool as could be, hitting the pulse of the beat perfectly. I really love this track, it's just so compellingly urgent yet laid back, serious yet fun. It's one of those things that could easily get picked up as a radio hit but there's nothing else quite like that on the album; it's followed by the very soft and gentle Hey My My My, which has a smooth string section providing the soothing fade out. And that in turn is followed by the playfully sensual Throw Your Hands Up, built around a steady chugging rhythm that The Knack might have used (though obviously not as well).
I might be off-beam with The Knack but Cam does allude to numerous other songs throughout the course of this album. Hey My My Myis not the only nod in Neil Young's direction. The beautiful Driftwood that opens the album has you wondering for thirty seconds or so just which NY song is being covered here. The acoustic guitar and mournful harmonica are certainly very familiar. Various other song titles make ghostly appearances in the midst of a lyric, whilst the album closes withCome As You Are (not the Nirvana song). In the context of what else he's doing, though, this is just one more morsel he's chucking in our direction. He's a really intelligent writer who finds so many different ways to engage our attention in the course of a four minute song, and, for that, cry hosannah! Another favourite that's emerged for me is almost the musical antithesis ofMy Lover And I. Cool Cool Night is sparse, just Cam's voice and guitar, a little harmonica and a gentle beat on the drums. He leads you in gently, describing lying by a camp fire at night, staring up into the sky, seemingly at peace. The lyric becomes more wistful, talking about other places he might be. Only in the payoff lines at the end does the bitterness come through: this is a homeless man singing, lamenting finding himself in "another rich man's town". That's really good writing and one example of the quiet ambition Cam Penner has to make the most powerful music he can.
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