Best of Alberta’s 2011 Roots Music Releases


In today’s Red Deer Advocate I reviewed the recent Guy Clark tribute, This One’s For Him. I’ll post that in a few weeks, but for now here is the overview of Alberta releases that ran a couple weeks back.

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Wonderful roots music came out of our province this past year, and today I take a look back on my favourite Alberta roots music albums of 2011.

The rootsy-pop of another era returned this summer with the release of Idyl Tea’s first album in sixteen years. Once a fixture of Edmonton clubs, the Idyl Tea trio surprised with the strength of their double album Song That’s Not Finished Yet- The Unthology. Infectious pop melodies with more than enough country overtones for roots rock- heck, if Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers are considered roots, Idyl Tea certainly qualify. On this double album, Idyl Tea combines that which connects country and power pop: bright melodies, devastating confession through lyric, and the breezy ability to convey unmistakable melancholy.  “A Guitar and A Broken Heart,” “Just a Road”­- an Americana gathering in hell-“Penitent Song,” and “Dark Day in Edmonton” are simply wonderful while the companion collection of outtakes and demos reveal the group’s unrealized, original potential.

Edmonton’s Mark Davis continued his ascension as one of Canada’s critically lauded roots artists. Eliminate the Toxins was even more adventurous than his previous releases but retained the intense focus and introspection one has come to expect from a singer-songwriter whose best works can be appreciated on a poetic level while also serving as impetus to dance, albeit dance slowly. Davis’s music has a cinematic quality that cries out for visual interpretation. In the year we lost Jackie Leven, Mark Davis filled the chasm admirably. Multi-layered, Eliminate the Toxins is so all-encompassing that listeners will find themselves sinking into its warmth.

Captain Tractor’s Famous Last Words was largely ignored at radio but served as a welcome return for the Edmonton collective. Lively stuff, based in tradition (Celtic sing-alongs including “Diamond Joe” “Johnny’s Ghost”) but with no lack of originality and creativity. The songs possesss universal appeal with lots of Alberta references- hockey games, cannibalism (an epic song from Australia sure, but the events described could have just as easily happened on western Canadian prairies), open highways, and local rebellion. This well-played album benefited greatly from the contributions of fiddler Shannon Johnson.

Previously unknown to me, on Valley Home Joe Vickers documented the history of the Drumheller Valley with a focus on the stories and impact of the coal mining experience. Utilizing a variety of approaches, sounds, and tempos, Vickers created a compelling and insightful account of his home community. His music was rustic with acoustic guitar, fiddle, and banjo coming through the neo-traditional mix. More than a history lesson, Valley Home was an engaging set of lively folk-inspired music touching on a broad cross-section of tales: pit ponies, the flooded Red Deer River, Allan Cup champions, ghost towns, miners, and madams.

Collecting 14 seamlessly brilliant offerings, this spring Ben Sures released his most fully-realized recording. Gone to Bolivia opened with a pair of absolutely devastating songs including “American Shantytown” and “High School Steps.” “The Boy Who Walked Backwards Through the Snow” deserves to become a Canadian folk standard. Creating wonderful, fully realized songs of depth with lyrical gems hidden throughout, Sures remains an invigorating voice within the crowded Canadian folk market.

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