Colin Linden,
From the Water
(True North, 2009)

Among Canada's most respected roots artists, Colin Linden keeps busy as solo performer, band member (of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, whose most recent release I reviewed in this space on 9 May 2009) and producer for a range of worthy folk, blues and rock recording acts. Given who Linden is and what his talents are, From the Water is almost predictable in its considerable appeal. As he plays guitars, sings, composes and produces, a crackerjack band spews out greasy, funky notes, exciting the spirit of any listener who has one.

Linden has an intimate tenor voice whose phrasing sometimes reminds me less of a venerable bluesman's than of folk-pop singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester's. A few of his self-written songs -- on the new disc "I Have Seen a Miracle" in particular -- could easily be dropped onto a Winchester disc. Another, "Devilment," sounds a little like Winchester in one of his periodic blues excursions. In addition, some of the production updates what one might have heard on an early Ry Cooder album. (In fairness, I hear precisely that influence on many roots albums these days.) And -- almost inevitably -- the ghost of The Band floats through the musical landscape ("John Lennon in New Orleans," "Sinking Down Slow," "The Heaven Me"). Though credited to Linden and Gary Nicholson, "God Will Always Remember Your Prayers" feels -- as I suspect was the intention -- like Washington Phillips, the legendary gospel street singer (also, by the way, an early influence on Cooder).

None of this amounts to any lessening of the pleasure that emerges From the Water, which fuses backward-looking homage to Linden's evolutionary influences -- and very smart ones they are -- with a forward-looking creative approach of the sort that gives rooted music a running start on an otherwise tradition-indifferent 21st century. The one non-original dazzlingly reworks "Built Right on the Ground," credited to Blind Teddy Darby, who -- in the fashion of the oldtime rural musicians who pushed the folk process along -- compiled floating verses and images into a loose yet curiously compelling narrative.

There is not a clunker here, nowhere anything less than intelligently conceived and movingly expressed, but a word of warning is in order. "The Heaven Me," the unsparing penultimate cut, is not suited to casual listening. A tribute to a beloved friend, keyboard man Richard Bell, who died before his time, it will lay you on the floor. Bell played in a post-Robbie Robertson/Richard Manuel incarnation of The Band, a fact explicitly acknowledged in Linden's arrangement. Everything about this astonishing song serves to affirm that a great piece of music is more than memorable melody and meaningful lyrics. Great music can be an overwhelming, almost otherworldly emotional force, truer than truth, larger than mere experience. In other words, art of a transcendent order. "The Heaven Me" is certainly that.

review by
Jerome Clark

20 June 2009

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