Ray Bonneville,
Goin' by Feel
(Red House, 2007)

Its generic-sounding title aside, Goin' by Feel feels more like it. Singer-songwriter Ray Bonneville's second Red House release satisfies in ways that his first, Roll It Down (2004), which suffered from a certain monotony of approach, does not. (Still, Roll carries the haunting "Oxford Town," worth looking up.) As before, Bonneville is rooted in older musical traditions, his chosen method of expression an electrified, bluesy approach, sometimes with a rock rumble at the bottom, to folk-accented material, incorporating a fair amount of slide guitar alongside graveled vocal. This time around, though, the songs are more distinctive, more consistently strong.

There are some songs that Bob Dylan, of whom Bonneville sometimes will remind the listener, would be proud to have written ("What Katy Did," "Cemetery Road" and "Carry the Fallen," in particular). The most memorable cut, however, is the unsettling "Crow John," an enigmatic parable of violence in the desert that invokes the spirit of Cormac McCarthy (the Southwestern novelist, not the Canadian folksinger). Even after repeated listenings, its elliptical narrative and Bonneville's stoic vocal keep the song's eerie power undiminished. It may or may not help to know -- as I didn't when I first heard it -- that a flock of crows is known as "a murder of crows," a play on which phrase is at the cold heart of the story. Like Dylan, Bonneville also plays with traditional titles and lyrics; "Crow John" parodies the name of the African-American folksong "Crow Jane."

Hints of the sinister run through much of Goin'. As in "Crow John," it's not often spelled out, and the listener is left to fill in the blank space out of his or her own imagination, or primal fear. One thinks of the blues-ballad form, where the song does not relate the story but offers running commentary on it. Among the more straightforward songs is "I Am the Big Easy," literally what the title suggests: New Orleans (where Bonneville, who has dual American-Canadian citizenship, lived for a few years) singing of itself -- its history, character, endurance, the tragedy and criminality of the Katrina episode.

"Big Easy" packs a wallop, but so does just about everything else here. "Peak of his powers" is a cliche, but it is from that vantage -- helped up there by the good taste and keen sense of co-producers Gurf Morlix and Rob Heaney -- that Ray Bonneville stands out. Dylan himself might learn a lesson or two.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 April 2008

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