Joe Nolan has been banging and busking on the independent circuit for more than a decade, releasing at least six previous albums of increasingly insightful and satisfying troubadoric tuneage.
Beginning with dreamy, affectation-laden rock songs with more than a little Cobain & Pirner in his presentation (Pocket Dreams, 2008), the Edmonton-based songwriter has grown into his art, repeatedly proving himself the real deal. Much like Josh Ritter, Nolan has found the desired balance between guitar licks and prosaic verses to enliven his narrative and poetic instincts.
Last time out, he took ‘the great leap forward,’ to create a non sequitur of a Billy Bragg axiom, with ballads including “River” and “Maybe We Didn’t Get Our Timing Right” that could be played alongside folks with notable surnames—Hiatt and Mellencamp, natch, as well as Prophet, Carlile, Knight, and the like—without hesitation.
Joe Nolan had previously impressed with both Cry Baby (2018) and Tornado (2014) being personal favourites. But with Drifters (2020) he appeared to reach a new plateau, one he maintains throughout Scrapper; they are, however, very different records. The writing is every bit as strong, but while Drifters had a definite ‘solo,’ acoustic feel, this time out the band is let loose to excellent effect. With Drifters, one was tempted to close eyes and travel along on his song-dreams; much like Cry Baby and Tornado, you are more likely to get up and move around to Scrapper, allowing the deliberate classic rock radio-fueled touches motivate movement.
Yet another album with its genesis in the pandemic, Scrapper covers ground that Nolan has long favoured: relationships—mostly challenged, but with some bright spots—is given attention, as are—unsurprisingly—solitude and distance.
Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” seeps into one of the album’s stronger songs, “All Love Is Lit.” One hears it in the elaborate keys and synthesizer effects coming around on each verse. It is a companionable nod to an influence (one presumes) and does nothing to detract from the song’s confidence in the face of distant reality.
Most of us who discovered her world during Grade Seven will recognize the reference to “Cherry Valance,” another well-constructed, cinematic song that pulls the listener into its vibrant, moody set. Long before the protagonist is “greasin’ back his hair,” we are hoping for the lovers, all these years later still impacted by being “born on the wrong side.”
“Whole New Love” opens with a groove straight out of the Bob Seger songbook—nothing wrong with that—and contains those earnest qualities we appreciate: “this highway’s getting dark,” and there is “a prison around my soul,” but no one is succumbing to the darkness—“I don’t ever wanna give up this fight on loving you.” Devotion is often forgotten while on the musical road, but not here nor on “See You Soon,” with a nod to Bob.
That sense of companionable faith flows across Scrapper’s eleven songs, whether personal testimonial (“Sweet Lil Blues” and “When I’m Feeling Down”) or more community focused, including the impacts of isolation driven by the pandemic (“New to the Neighbourhood.”)
Within each of his songs is a pulsing hopefulness that comes through not only in the lyrics but the musicianship. While unabashedly rooted in…well, roots music—the folk tradition, I suppose—there is the passion of rock ‘n’ roll infused. Nolan handles most of the guitars, keys, samples, and such, but is joined by bassist Nigel Gale and Andrew Scott to beef up the proceedings.
Nataya Nolan contributes some vocals, and sister Jenie Thai adds piano to the impressive “All Love Is Lit.” Kyle Mosiuk is guest guitarist on “Whole New Love.” With the basic tracks captured in a single self-produced recording session a year ago, Scrapper sounds spontaneous but tight and fully realized.
Scrapper feels pretty ideal, with a vibe similar to Ayla Brook & the Sound Men’s Desolation Sounds—perhaps not coincidently out last year on Fallen Tree Records. Highly recommended with hopes that we will hear it frequently on CKUA and other fine-minded radio outlets.