If the name John Antoniuk doesn’t ring a bell, it might be because you’re more familiar with his stage name, Smokekiller. As Smokekiller, Antoniuk has already released two successful albums, a self-titled debut album in 2005 and the critically acclaimed 13 in 2008. The latter album was also selected as a national finalist for the 2009 Radiostar Songwriting Competition. In 2011, he was awarded a 10k20 grant from Rawlco Radio, which he used to record his latest album Always With You with the help of folk-rock musician Leeroy Stagger acting as producer.
The title Always With You alludes to the death of Antoniuk’s mother, to whom the album is dedicated. This is also the reason why Antoniuk traded in his old moniker for his real name, though he’s still calling his backing band The Smokekiller Band.
Her death, combined with Antoniuk’s sudden unemployment, led to a revelation about how much time the musician was dedicating to his music—forcing him to question how living with only one foot in the door of a musical career while the other held open a crack at a more conventional workplace was keeping him from succeeding at either. With new priorities and ample time, Always With You explores Antoniuk’s journey into really exploring the possibilities of a musical career. Through it all, delicately woven in, are Antoniuk’s doubts and hopes about what his mother might think of his life.
If there was any doubt about the presence of Antoniuk’s mother in the album, the title of the first song “Holding On (for Marlene)” makes it obvious, while also bringing into play the double entendre of the dedication to his mother and his own intent to succeed in this new career as a result of her passing. The song features Antoniuk’s gentle vocals, layered and made complex by the intricacies of the meanings.
“I don’t want to let you down” is the powerfully blunt opening line of “Good Girl Down”, but again the lyrical complexities of Antoniuk’s writing provide ample possibilities for who that “you” could be. “Chicago” takes off in a much more country direction compared to the typically more indie-rock sound of Always With You, but the storytelling nature of the genre suits Antoniuk’s desire to recollect and analyze.
“Chicago” also starts off a series of folksy/country songs that carry with them a very West coast influence. At times a bit incongruous for an artist that sites Weezer and Wilco as influences, the sound seems to be the most suited for what Antoniuk is trying to say both lyrically and musically.
“Take It Back” brings to mind Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky”, easing up on the already light touches of electric guitar and relying heavily on a gentle rhythm section. “Let It Go” seems to be the link between the country and indie elements, featuring a moving guitar solo and a catchy refrain.
The vocal work on “Don’t Let’Em In” is perhaps some of the best on the album, managing to be moving and beautiful while remaining true to Antoniuk’s style of softer sounds. As a closer, “For You” is bittersweet and nostalgic, stripping everything down to Antoniuk’s voice and an acoustic guitar.
Always With You is a powerful album that manages to layer the simplest lyrics with astounding complexity. Without ever once moving outside of a subdued and gentle sound, Antoniuk fills each note with impact and each word with memory. It’s a stunning tribute.
Top Tracks: “Let It Go”; “Don’t Let’Em In”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)