An Honest Effort
There must be something in those canola fields of Alberta that makes good songwriters. Matt Patershuk is the third singer-songwriter this writer has covered in just the past two months. Those who read reviews know that this writer is especially fond of Black Hen Records, and virtually anything its owner, producer, and all-around artist Steve Dawson touches. Patershuk fits in nicely with the Black Hen singer-songwriter sound. He is unpretentious, detailed but mostly direct, singing mostly in character sketches. The title speaks to the theme as his stories are about people trying. Sometimes they overcome the odds but more often they do not. Nonetheless, there is value in trying and they are better off for it.
The Black Hen usual cast is aboard to support Patershuk’s songs. Dawson plays guitar, pedal steel and Weissenborn, adding his signature colors, which often run counterpoint to the lyrics. Jeremy Holmes chimes in with mandolin and steady bass with rhythm partner Gary Craig on percussion. Nashville’s secret weapon Fats Kaplin contributes fiddle, ukulele, banjo, and harmonica. Keri Latimer adds spark with her harmonies, as Patershuk has earthy, warm vocals with limited range. Part of it is his “aw shucks” image, not unlike a cowboy strumming his guitar around a campfire, having pitched his tent, with a watchful eye on his horse grazing nearby.
He begins with “Johanna,” about a lost woman as the narrator doesn’t so much as offer empathy but instead hopes that she gets good and lost. This kind of song is part of Patershuk’s style; he may seem innocent, but a devious smile sometimes lurks below the surface. On the other hand, “Sunny” is written through the perspective of a woman in an unhappy and abusive relationship, with a chorus that begs her to run and save herself.
Other songs are wildly imaginative and two of them are equine related. “Jupiter The Flying Horse” is inspired by an old Barnum and Bailey circus poster. It’s a tale of two horses from two sides of the track, one rich, one poor. “Clever Hans” is even stranger, taking us to early 20th century Germany and the real-life tale of a horse that performed arithmetic and other intellectual tasks far beyond the scope of normal horses. Patershuk explores the trainer’s contributions in developing these talents.
Two others are off kilter as well. The spare banjo plucked “The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics” follows his song from a few years ago, “Memory & the First Law of Thermodynamics.” This one’s about entropy, the certainty that objects in the universe tend toward disorder. “Shane MacGowan” is about a man’s transformation in personality owing to new dental implants.
Yet, there are relatable songs too. “Turn the Radio Up,” the first single (with animated video too) is about life together in middle age. It’s not the same as those halcyon youthful days but it’s still good in a different way. Dawson’s guitar solo and the strains of Holmes’ mandolin imbue this relaxed tune. “Afraid to Speak Her Name” is a mournful dirge. There is no chorus or instrumental melody per se, just Patershuk setting a scene with words, that Dawson replicates musically on his Weissenborn. The album highlight though is “Stay With Me,” a gentle stomper about spending time with someone whose days are numbered. The present blurs with the past, punctuated by Fats Kaplin’s harmonica and Latimer’s lovely harmonies.
This album is a bit deceptive. Patershuk comes across initially as a ‘what you see is what you get” type but there’s tons of depth in his imagination and his paintings with words.
Oh, by the way the other two Alberta-based singer-songwriters worth looking into are fellow Black Hen artist John Wort Hannam and Calgary-based T. Buckley. While you’re at it, you many want to check James McMurtry’s song, “Canola Fields.” There may be some hints there as to why these Alberta-based songwriters have a special knack.