Nathan Wiley,
The City Destroyed Me
(Sonic/Warner, 2007)

I like to think of myself as reasonably well informed about the Canadian alternative music scene. But somehow Nathan Wiley managed to slip below my radar with his first two albums, Bottom Dollar (2002) and High Low (2004). Luckily, this gap in my musical knowledge has been partially plugged with my recent purchase of Wiley's latest offering, the spectacular, moody, sonically diverse release The City Destroyed Me.

It's taken Wiley three years to come up with his third album, the delay due in large part to his desire to work with producer Steve Berlin on this recording. Berlin, best known as a member of Los Lobos, has produced such diverse acts as Faith No More, Rickie Lee Jones and the Tragically Hip. But at the point when Wiley was ready to get to work on disc three, Berlin was otherwise occupied and, rather than recording with another producer, Wiley elected to wait until the pair could coordinate their schedules.

Having recently visited Wiley's website to check out a few of his earlier songs, it's interesting to attempt to define what Berlin brought to the The City Destroyed Me project. The new songs have a cleanness to their sound that isn't as evident in the songs from the first two albums. There's a feeling that every bit of instrumentation is critically important to the completed piece, that anything superfluous has been stripped away. It's not a minimalist approach, however. The cleanness is deftly married to a raw, yet layered intensity, particularly in the percussion elements and the subdued use of Hammond organ embellishments. There's plenty of cleverly used distortions, and inventive instrumentation -- vibes, glockenspiel, farfisa, kazoos -- that add to the richness of the listening experience. There's something about each song that makes it a completely fresh experience.

That said, there are some highlights that need to be catalogued. The album opens with "One of the Worst Ones," a catchy pop tune that launches with some aggressive minor key guitar work laid over simple piano quarter notes. The lyrics, "You're all out of shape / Just give me a break / I'm doing the only thing I know / According to you I'm one of the worst ones" set the tone for this smart, dark album.

"The City Destroyed Me" is next up. It's a song that relates to the period during which Wiley, a Prince Edward Island native, took up residence in Vancouver, B.C. "And all of the faces in the windows / Feeding eyes in the night / And all of the innocent perverts / Keeping well out of sight / The city destroys, the city destroyed me." Dale Desroches' stripped-down percussion sets a plodding pace perfectly suited to the world-weary tone of the song's vocals. But the mood abruptly transitions in order to celebrate the dark and dirty elements of big city life in "Sick Side," a song propelled by Wiley's staccato guitar attack and the wonderful backing vocals of Alanna Stuart.

Further along on the album, the reggae-influenced "Needle in the Groove" could easily have felt awkward in the hands of a less skilled and honest musician. But Wiley isn't clumsily appropriating Jamaican culture here. Rather, the song's rhythms seem to wash over the vocalist moving him in a completely natural and hypnotic manner. The result is a musical chimera, a newly discovered species. "Graveyard" is another standout, a quiet, wistful piece with a beautifully restrained chromatic harp accompaniment provided by Andrew Gillis.

And The City Destroyed Me doesn't let up. The album continues to deliver intriguing, lyrically complex, musically engaging tracks right through to the closing number, "Fistful of Throttle," a recording built from layer upon layer of Wylie instrumentation. Loops, guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals ... everything but the drums was performed by Wiley, a musician who really ought to be heard by anyone who appreciates accessible originality.

Now, to find those earlier albums.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

8 March 2008

what's new