One of the highlights of last year’s Charlottetown Festival was a production of Dear Johnny Deere, a musical built around the songs of Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith.
The show, not surprisingly, attracted a number of hardcore Eaglesmith fans.
But for many who bought tickets last summer, Dear Johnny Deere provided the first significant exposure to Eaglesmith, who’s never gotten a lot of airplay in this market save for CBC and possibly some country stations.
I was not unfamiliar with Eaglesmith but still walked away from opening night wondering why I hadn’t paid more attention to his work and why he wasn’t a major star.
I made a mental note to keep my ear to the ground for anything new he might have coming down the pike.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Early last month, Eaglesmith released Tambourine, his first album of new material since 2010’s Cha Cha Cha.
My expectations for the record, thanks to Dear Johnny Deere, were high.
Tambourine exceeded those expectations and then some.
The last two lines in the third verse of Can’t Dance, one of 11 new songs Eaglesmith penned for the record, seems to sum things up rather nicely.
“I ain’t never gonna be a star, but I sure do know how to please a crowd.”
He certainly does. He also knows how to throw a musical curve ball at you once in a while.
Tambourine fuses together elements of vintage rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and Tejano music to create a record which, in the words of his label is pure rock ‘n’ roll reminiscent of 1966.
Sources say he consciously stayed away from anything that was popular in mainstream music today.
Eaglesmith describes the record this way:
“When I put the songs together for Tambourine, I was thinking about the days when there were five push buttons on an automobile radio,” Eaglesmith explains.
“Everyone was listening to AM stations and, at any given time, one of those five buttons was playing a song worth listening to. The album is a walk through the garden of rock ‘n’ roll. The music’s roots are firmly dug in the mid-to-late 1960s. The primary essence is 1966 — the year that gave us Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Question Mark & the Mysterians.”
As a 14-year-old who stayed up late into the night during that period listening to New York disc jockeys like Cousin Brucie and Murray the K, I can say he got the sound he was looking for.
And they did it the old-fashioned way.
Tambourine was recorded live off the floor in an old hall in Vittoria, Ont., using an eight-track analogue console that captured the entire band playing together in the same room.
The music may have that ‘60s feel, but the lyrics on Tambourine are a lot meatier than much of what passed for radio fare during that period. They touch on a number of themes familiar to Eaglesmith fans, including dedication, perseverance, going against the grain, knowing when to cut your losses, relationships that work and relationships that don’t work.
Bad relationships are responsible for two of my favourite tracks here, Train Wreck, in which he tells the story of a woman trying to get back into the life of a man she dumped, and perhaps the ultimate break-up song, Nobody Gets Everything.
Every song on Tambourine is a keeper.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 629-6000, ext. 6057.