review by Chris Matei
At a moment in musical history when cheery folk-alternative balladeers are increasingly veering in more experimental and modern directions (see the avant-garde balletic futurism of Patrick Watson’s latest Love Songs for Robots or the darker, exploratory and cynical tone of Dan Mangan’s Club Meds, if not the commercially-groomed electrification of Mumford and Sons) Graham Ereaux (aka. Devarrow) has taken his sophomore LP The Great Escape to a place rooted in the naturalistic simplicity and challenging vastness of the Canadian landscape that stretches between his current home of Vancouver and his roots in Moncton.
Mid-album track “1984” opens with a foreboding sample: “man is a phase of nature, and only as he is related to nature does he matter.” The Great Escape reads like a travelogue that explores this notion, occasionally revelling in the beauty around it while also making note of the trials of long days and bleak nights – as Ereaux does on “Northern Lights.” “Modern Ark” takes us closest to the core of this belief, with its tales of steamboats and woodsmen, river-riding and mining gold. Devarrow writes like a man out of time, searching for the middle ground between the past and the present.
There’s style and character for days in the sound of this record: the vibe is loose, organic and wide-open, the vocals charmingly double-tracked. From a recording and production standpoint, the chosen soundscape makes a pitch-perfect setting for the wider mood of The Great Escape. A sense of welcoming, warm space sits around guitars that blend acoustic chime and overdriven grit in just the right proportions (recalling the tones, if not the frenetic fretwork, of Australian eleven-string wizard John Butler at their more inspired moments.) The drum-work thuds like a boot on a balcony beam, bloomy, snare drum all but replaced by tambourine shakey-shakes. It’s an inviting thing to listen to a record that really feels alive – just listen to the break of electric licks across the chain-clanking rhythms of “Stranger” and you’ll hear what I mean.
That open-chested kick drum, however, points to one of my biggest concerns with The Great Escape: nearly every song on the record builds on the same kind of thump-clap-shake-thump rhythmic pulse with which, it seems, alt-folk acts from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros to Shakey Graves to Shred Kelley to Jake Bugg have previously worn grooves in the floors of various stages. Ereaux’s keen ear for in-song dynamic transitions, his lilting head-voiced vocal delivery (something in which recalls the angelic strains of Robin Pecknold) and his investments in compelling story-crafting – whether bluegrass-y, rollicking, or tender and spare – are dulled by his decisions when it comes down to the broader meta-game of arrangement.
“Vancouver” is a compelling exception to this note: only the album’s third track, it uses an array of clanking, crunching percussive patterns, growls, hisses and skittering staccato acoustics to almost perfectly convey the grime, grind and relentless noisy activity of the big city on a rainy night. Playing the angular soundscape against Ereaux’s ever-rising falsetto makes for a compelling contrast. This inventiveness, combined with the catchy, dirty-blues riffs and a fierce solo section, makes the song a real highlight. It’s a case in point: throughout the album’s length, it is when these creative flashes get the chance to shine through that The Great Escape really does escape the conventions of its alternative-folk peers.
Top Tracks: “Strangers,” “Vancouver”
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)