various artists,
35 Years of Stony Plain
(Stony Plain, 2011)

Harry Manx & Kevin Breit,
Strictly Whatever
(Stony Plain, 2011)

Founded by Holger Petersen, who remains at the helm, Canada's Stony Plain has championed roots sounds in good times and bad. It has stayed committed all the while to excellence in music even when that music has little chance of topping the charts that track what passes for mass taste. Featuring highlights from the label's history, 35 Years of Stony Plain comprises two CDs (totaling 41 songs and tunes) and one DVD (10 videos plus "Tour of the Stony Plain Offices" in Edmonton, Alberta).

On the first CD it's mostly folk-based singer-songwriters who hold forth, with occasional forays into Western swing, progressive country, hokum and jazz. The relatively prominent Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Asleep at the Wheel are here, but theirs were only passing associations with the label. Maria Muldaur (Dan Hicks's "The Diplomat") has been there a long time, as has been another longstanding favorite of mine, Ian Tyson.

Tyson sings "Blaino's Song" from his most recent CD, Yellowhead to Yellowstone (see my review here on 28 March 2009), spotlighting both Tyson's unexcelled Western-folk writing and a voice that even the liner notes acknowledge has become "scarred." A video of Tyson's earlier "Springtime in Alberta" -- lots of horses and gorgeous north-of-the-border Rocky Mountain landscapes -- recalls the mellifluous baritone that was. Less recognized names, at least here in the United States, include the Tyson-mentored, Alberta-bred Corb Lund, who shows up with "Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier," an original in the grand ballad tradition. Another relatively new folksinger-songwriter, Tim Hus, offers "Country Music Lament," written when the direction of Nashville's version of country still seemed worth caring about.

The second CD is a comparable delight, this one all jazz, blues and r&b, with everybody from current circuit stars Duke Robillard, Joe Louis Walker and Rory Block to older, dead or no longer active performers such as Jay McShann, Billy Boy Arnold and -- concluding proceedings with three strong archival sides -- the great Robert Nighthawk.

The same package that brought 35 Years delivers Stony Plain's newest release, Harry Manx & Kevin Breit's Strictly Whatever. Guitarists Manx & Breit, two veterans of Canadian roots stages and studios, are artists of unusual technical skill and creative vision. I reviewed their In Good We Trust here on 3 November 2007. This CD strikes me as modestly less ambitious than Trust, which is no criticism, though the decision to cover Bobby Hebb's "Sunny," a piece of pop fluff even in their able hands, feels inexplicable.

Breit's "Looking for a Brand New World," which also appears on 35 Years, is a fair sample of the wide-ranging music the two create. That sound nods at points to assorted genres and styles, traditional and modern, Western and Eastern, while seldom settling into one or the other. "Folk-rock" covers a range of sins and virtues, and it will do if one wishes to give a name to what's going on in these grooves. You might think of it as roughly the sort of thing that could emerge if Ry Cooder and Richard Thompson -- or maybe Thompson and David Lindley -- were to form a duo. Something you'd want to hear, I suspect.

In the meantime, Manx & Breit, who are very much their own men, are fashioning recordings of decidedly more than standard intelligence and appeal. Here's your chance to seek out a couple of distinctive musical voices. It'll be well worth the effort, and besides, you'll be doing your part to help Stony Plain gear up for the next 35 years.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 August 2011

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