Review – “The Fabulist” – Juniperus

coverreviewed by Michael Thomas

Juniperus is yet more proof that the Canadian music scene is an endless well of creativity. This blog has covered plenty of creative albums, sometimes inspired by poetry or other works, but this may be something never seen before. In a nutshell, The Fabulist takes on 12 of Aesop’s fables and turns them into folk songs, with each character given a unique voice. Apparently the live show even incorporates shadow puppetry.

Yet it’s not children’s music, which is what makes this album so fascinating. Not to mention the beautiful album aesthetic—as if the album artwork wasn’t pretty enough to look at, each song features a gorgeous illustration of the subject matter.

Jeffrey Popiel deserves major credit for what he’s put together here—he plays a slew of instruments and has a ridiculous vocal range, hitting such high highs and such low lows that it’s difficult to imagine that’s all by one person. He’s also amassed a number of backup players who add extra vocal colour and instruments like oboe and bassoon.

Here’s another first for the blog—a suggestion of background reading. Take a few minutes to read the fable that inspires each song, they’re all very short and will help you better appreciate the way Popiel and co. expand on the characters and storylines.

The album’s folk core isn’t solid, allowing some songs to veer in orchestral territory, most pronounced in album standout “The Vain Jackdaw.” The story, about a jackdaw who wants to become king of the birds by stealing feathers from others, bursts to life with instruments heard on no other song. Flutes add a sense of breathlessness over the instruments heard elsewhere on the album, like oboe. “The Moon and her Mother” creates a twinkling melody from a vibraphone and more to bring to mind the lunar entity.

But sometimes a simple touch does the trick. “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs” tells a story of a greed husband and wife with just classical guitar and trombone. “The Fox Without a Tail” is a clarinet-studded affair that takes an interesting twist on the story of the fox who loses his tail and tries to convince his fellow foxes to lose theirs.

With such comforting and beautiful music, it’s easy to forget that the music can occasionally turn dark. Closer “The Boys and the Frogs” is full of death (though described a lot more thoroughly than the fable itself) while “The Ox and the Frogs” has an abrupt end that will take a minute to process. (Side note: what did Aesop have against frogs?)

This is only a brief glimpse into the wonderful world Popiel has woven. Considering Aesop has written so many fables, it would be wonderful to see several more albums of this stuff.

Top Tracks: “The Ox and the Frogs”; “The Vain Jackdaw”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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