Jay Aymar,
Passing Through
(independent, 2011)

Toronto singer-songwriter Jay Aymar received a serious career boost when Ian Tyson covered his composition "My Cherry Colored Rose," an astonishing song whose like one rarely encounters, on Yellowhead to Yellowstone (which I reviewed here on 28 March 2009). Many of us heard of Aymar for the first time then, though he had cut two mostly ignored albums previously. Aymar's terrific reading of the song, significantly different from Tyson's, showed up later on his third, Halfway Home (see my review of 24 April 2010).

Here's the significance of the preceding paragraph: Wherever fortune takes him, Aymar may have already written his career-defining song. It may not be possible to open a discussion of Aymar's music without first dragging in Tyson and "Rose" (about the grief of the real-life Don Cherry, Canada's well-known, tough-talking hockey announcer, from the death of his wife Rose). So let us state up front that nothing on Passing Through, which is a good album overall, matches That Song. Aymar may be like the late Steve Goodman, who wrote a number of decent songs but none so remembered as "City of New Orleans." On the other hand, most singer-songwriters manage not to be remembered for anything in particular.

Somewhere in the liner notes Aymar calls this a "song cycle," which typically means a bunch of songs linked by a theme, specific or broad. To my hearing, of Passing's 10 cuts, the first five -- and possibly the next two -- offer various perspectives on fame, celebrity and the artist/performer's quest for same. The title song, in my judgment the album's one near-masterpiece, contemplates how entertainment figures become gods, and how our fear of death drives this particular variety of spiritual hallucination. A few other songs by other writers take up comparable subjects, but "Passing Through" is as brilliantly conceived and executed as any of them.

We ought to take note, too, of Aymar's natural musicality, not so common among his singing, songwriting contemporaries who in another time would have been poets and novelists. His melodies flow, and he is a pure sort of singer with a fluid, expressive voice that conveys wry humor on the lighter songs, a convincing compassion on the darker ones. As nearly every writer on Aymar remarks -- for the right reasons: it's true, and it's central to his art -- he has an approachable, everyman persona. Listening to him is such a comfortable experience that sometimes you have to hear a song more than once to grasp that he's raising some not-so-comfortable issues.

Since Aymar has been spending time in Nashville, it isn't surprising that the production, albeit not the lyric content of most songs, is country-inflected. There are two genuine country pieces, one of them the impressive "Worthless String of Pearls" (one can imagine Don Williams recording it when in his prime) and the other a not-so-successful "The Cowboy I Know." The latter, the disc's one misfire, recycles every cliche without which one could not enter or leave a recording studio as Nashville's "outlaw" fad ran its course in the 1970s. "Outlaw" even shows up in a line, and it sounds no better -- actually, worse -- than it did when voiced by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and David Allan Coe in their lesser moments. Still, as is ordinarily the case with Aymar's material, the melody is strong and attention-catching. Too bad it doesn't serve sturdier lyrics which Aymar could, moreover, have sung with more authority than he does these.

Misstep or two notwithstanding, Aymar is one of the good guys, possessed of a distinctive, charming musical personality and an easy-going intelligence. There may or may not be another career-defining song in him, but regardless, the ones he's writing are worth hearing.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 May 2011

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