Ken Whiteley,
(Borealis, 2000)

Listening, the new solo album from veteran Canadian roots musician Ken Whiteley, has both depth and breadth. Although basically a folk/blues album, Whiteley's unique style includes strains of gospel, jazz, swing, world and other roots music. Of the recording's twelve tracks, eleven are original material, sharing the album's theme of listening -- to ourselves, to each other and to the world around us. The album has a positive, uplifting spirit, and Whiteley's performance is heartfelt.

Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Whiteley has lived in Toronto, Ontario, for most of his life. On this album, he plays 6- and 12-string and national steel guitars, mandolin, organ, piano, accordion and the triangle, displaying his versatility in instruments as well as in a variety of musical styles. Many guest musicians appear on the album, providing bass, vocals, harmonica, sax, clarinet, drums, Celtic harp, percussion, fiddle and trombone. If you are a fan of folk music who likes variety, this album will not disappoint.

"Woke Up This Morning" is the first track on the album, and the only traditional one. Sung a capella in a barbershop, gospel-type style, the track features rich harmonies and a good, swaying beat. The next track is "If The Wind," and is done in a more bluesy style. The clarinet and trombone add a good sound, and the true-to-life lyrics would appeal to just about anyone. Whiteley's crisp, clear voice does justice to "That's What I Love About You," a touching song which would not be out of place as the first dance at a wedding.

"Listening," the title track, is a gospel quartet-style song. Its catchy instrumental arrangement and upbeat rhythm makes it a good toe-tapper. The tone of the album changes a bit for the next track, "Bird, Mole, Flower." This song is ... different, which is certainly not to say that it isn't good. Whiteley borrows heavily from Middle-Eastern musical traditions here, but doesn't use quite as many "wacky" (at least, to Western ears) chords as you might here in a Middle-Eastern piece. The result is a good introduction to Eastern music for Westerners (or vice-versa) and a very unique sound.

The bluesy, guitar-driven "All I Need" is full of delightful instrumentals which will no doubt please the blues fan. (However, I should note that since I am generally not a fan of blues music, I am certainly not an authority on the matter.) "Easy to Change" has more of a folk sound to it. The tune is catchy, the guitar and sax fit well, and there's a good, strong bass, all of which reinforce Whiteley's potent lyrics. Whiteley then swings to the spiritual side with "Lord You Lifted Me," and then to jazz mode, in "Falling Snow."

A folk song with perhaps a country or Celtic influence, "Both Shall Sing" managed to grab my attention with its instrumentals and vocal harmonies. The fiddle and accordion fit well together, and the song was quite pleasant indeed. I also liked the soft, rich vocals and guitar in the slightly jazzy "Open the Door," and "Candelight" featured some nice picking on the guitar.

There are lots of interesting songs on this album. Whiteley has a talent for taking a diverse collection of styles and bringing them together in his own unique sound. Although I found the tempo of the album to be a little slow for my own (rather manic) taste, Whiteley's style should appeal to a wide variety of listeners. He is a talented musician, both in terms of the number of instruments he plays and the talent with which he plays them. It is clear that Whiteley puts his heart into his music, which, along with his soothing voice, makes for a pleasurable listening experience.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]

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