Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #92 – released September 10, 2011)

Track listing: Ciao Monday / Last Day On Earth / North / Home / Heartsleeves / Ageless / A Little War / Fast Exit / Survive / Transatlantic

I took on this project not only as an excuse to write about my favorite albums, but also to examine the format itself—what, as a work of art, it can accomplish and contain. I’ve covered albums constructed as musical or thematic suites, albums that are hard-to-categorize hybrids of disparate genres or categories, even an album crafted almost entirely out of other recordings. And yet, any music enthusiast knows that there exists those platonic ideals of the format: the ten (or twelve) track set (initially driven by how many pop songs could fit on two sides of a 33rpm vinyl record) where every piece sounds like it belongs as one equal part of a unified whole. Blue, The Dreaming, 16 Lovers Lane, Automatic For The People, If You’re Feeling Sinister and Seven Swans are but a half-dozen of these types of albums I’ve written about here (among others).

Northern Gospel, the 2011 album by Canadian singer-songwriter Emm Gryner, is a worthy addition to that list. After a pair of independently released albums, she signed to a major label and released Public in 1998 at the age of 23. During a boom time for the music industry, Public didn’t sell well enough for the label to keep Gryner on its roster; since then, she’s released all her music on her own label, which is why you probably haven’t heard of her. I first read about Gryner in Glenn McDonald’s blog The War Against Silence in early 2001; later that year, she released Girl Versions, a covers album featuring songs written by male artists ranging from Ozzy Osbourne to Stone Temple Pilots, stripped down into mostly piano-and-vocal arrangements. At that time, her neat take on Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” received ample airplay on a local college radio station; I soon acquired Girl Versions and most of her back catalog.

Gryner’s talent and longevity is enough to make any reasonable listener seriously question why she isn’t far better known (her highest profile gig was playing keyboards in David Bowie’s touring band not long after Public.) Naturally, her inclination to remain fiercely independent following her brief major-label stint has limited her reach to a potential audience by default. Still, as more artists like Gryner continue to emerge in an era where the music distribution has changed dramatically, audience size and household-name celebrity seem less relevant than ever—in fact, what has always mattered more is the work itself and how it endures.

Sift through Gryner’s extensive discography and you’ll find a remarkable consistency, from the glossy pleasures of Asianblue (2002) to the stark melancholy of 21st Century Ballads (2015). Even the relatively overproduced Public conveys an instinctual knack for melodies and hooks, not to mention Gryner’s strong, effervescent, clear-as-a-bell voice and her lovely piano (and bass) playing. She also tends to include at least one or two perfect pop gems per album: “Summerlong”, “Disco Lights”, “Symphonic” and “Young As The Night” are but a few, as is 2006’s “Almighty Love” which a figure no less famous than Bono listed in an article as one of ten songs he wish he’d written.

What makes Northern Gospel stand apart from Gryner’s previous work is that it is entirely made up of perfect pop gems—you can easily imagine each of them (with perhaps one exception) as an alternate-world hit single. It has no instrumentals, no genre experiments, no brief tracks that serve as intros or outros or links, no medleys or song suites, no mood pieces or tone poems—only ten tight, catchy songs all between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half minutes long. While this has the potential for monotony or too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome, each song is memorable enough in its own way to register upon impact and resonate with repeated listenings.

“Ciao Monday” opens Northern Gospel on a sprightly blend of whimsy and defiance. “I came alive in 1985 / made a pretty good plan out by the lakeside,” she sings over three resounding piano chords and a brisk acoustic guitar, taking on that well-covered subject of the most hated day of the week. The chorus is playground chant-simple (“Open the door, you can walk right through / Oh, Monday, Monday, I’m done with you”) but it’s infectious rather than cloying, enhanced by handclaps and a heaven-sent, chord-changing bridge (another Gryner specialty.) “Last Day on Earth” may up the tempo a notch and emphasize electric piano and various synths, but it plays as a natural follow-up. Transferring her gleeful kiss-off from the abstract day-of-week to an actual person, she practically beams as she unreservedly admits, “It’s a good day with you out of my life.”

After those two upbeat tunes comes a pair of ballads. “North” feels wistful and spacious, full of echoing piano chords and a rich declarative chorus. “Home” is somewhat slower and a bit mournful, underlining its Beatles-esque piano with soft surges of brass and organ. However, the songs are really two sides of the same coin. After recording albums in locales ranging from Ireland to California, Gryner made this one in her native Ontario. “North” is explicit in its homage to her place of origin (“In my heart you’re North of the border / shining down like the Aurora”) as it pleads for someone to join her there, whereas “Home” turns the tables—the singer is now the one far away from where she grew up, her regret palpable and devastating.

“Heartsleeves”, which follows, is one of ten songs most anyone would want to wish they had written. “Take all of your tears and make / a Great Lake that’ll freeze in winter,” she sings right at the intro, going on to describe an undervalued, perhaps long-distance relationship. With each line, the music builds until it reaches the ebullient chorus which seems to absolutely sparkle and sigh, especially when it hits the repeated lyric, “Don’t / stop / wearing your heart on your sleeve / Don’t / stop / ’cause of me,” those first two words delivered in a charming staccato. There’s no instrumental break at all—Gryner’s poignant melody and vocal carry the entire song, all the way until it circles back to the opening lyric at the close.

The album’s second half includes “Ageless”, an ode to a fellow musician that’s celebratory (“You’re rock n’roll and I’m the queen / when I’m around you”) but not too reverent to be relatable, and “Fast Exit”, whose piano-pounding bop resembles a cross between Carole King and The Pointer Sisters, its breathless, elated rush actually masking another lament to a lost love (“A fast exit / I was wrong / I’ve frozen you in a weekend song.”) In between those two energetic rockers sits “A Little War”, which Gryner originally recorded in a far more spare version on 2000’s Dead Relatives. Here, it’s a majestic, lighter-waving power ballad, flowing with warmth and grandeur, almost her very own “Purple Rain”.

“Fast Exit” ends on an abrupt final note with a sigh from Gryner; the next song almost seamlessly begins with her taking another breath. “Survive” is the most explicit the album comes to embodying its title. Musically, it’s a ballad full of soulful piano chords, Hammond organ and surging electric guitar; lyrically, it feels like the most personal/possibly autobiographical of Northern Gospel’s songs, or at least it hits the hardest. Working through themes of self-doubt, perseverance and day-to-day malaise, Gryner offers the following advice: “The trick is to survive, yes survive / You gotta want to keep yourself alive,” before changing perspective, asking, “Do I, do I?” It’s an intensely intimate detail wrapped in a timeless melody and arrangement.

The album signs off with “Transatlantic”, that least likely alternate-world hit single I referenced above. It’s more ethereal and less direct than anything preceding it, but still an effective closer, its melodious, overlapping vocals resulting in a gorgeous wash of sound, allowing for tension with the electronics underneath. It continues the album’s themes of the literal and figurative spaces between Gryner’s past and present and people she’s known—subject matter that would also work for an introspective, moodier album (and Gryner’s made a few of those.) Northern Gospel opts for the immediacy of classic pop, and such a pairing of sound and content proves irresistible.

Up next: Another near-perfect ten-track album, albeit on the more introspective side.

“Heartsleeves”:

“Survive”:

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Best Albums of 2017: # 9, 8, 7

9. Ted Leo, “The Hanged Man”
Leo kept us sane during the George W. Bush years, so it’s fitting that he chooses to make a full-throttle return now. Not counting The Both, this is his first album since 2010, and also the first credited solely to him without The Pharmacists, which is key. While always personable, his lyrics have rarely been so personal. He opens up about being abused as a child and his wife’s miscarriage, but he doesn’t let exorcising his demons get in the way of the defiant exuberance one always expects from him. Plus, there are enough new wrinkles here, like the overlapping vocals at the close of “Used To Believe” or the wisdom and warmth of “William Weld In the 21st Century” to suggest that this album is not a retread, but a way forward.

“Used To Believe”:

8. Emm Gryner, “Only Of Earth”
Gryner’s career longevity comes from both remaining fiercely independent and maintaining an inclusiveness that only someone with her caliber of talent can pull off. Her latest contains everything from piano balladry (“Comets Call”, alternate-world AOR standard “A Mission”) and Wendy and Lisa style psych-pop (the utterly charming “Imagination”) to Hammond organ-drenched, tempo-shifting prog (“The Passing of Ayro”) and late ’80s vintage synth-pop (“Blood Balloons”). She attempts to tie it all together as a sort of autobiographical concept album, with echoing melodies and lyrical callbacks strategically placed throughout. Although I still prefer 2011’s absolutely perfect Northern Gospel, this ambitious collection is her best since and another solid effort in an oeuvre full of ‘em. (No YouTube clips yet; to find out more, go to her PledgeMusic page.)

7. The Magnetic Fields, “50 Song Memoir”
Not in the same league as 69 Love Songs—with Stephin Merritt (understandably) singing on every last track, the earlier set’s four supplementary vocalists are much missed. Still, as autobiographical albums go, this one’s essential. Never say that Merritt doesn’t commit to a concept, and returning to one not solely defined by an aural aesthetic gives him an ideal platform for his encyclopedic pop knowledge. The set’s saving grace, however, is the ten-songs-per-disc format, which renders it all digestible, and the highlights, ranging from odes to “Judy Garland” and disco on the radio (“Hustle ‘76”) to clever ditties about roommates (“Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”) and favorite watering holes (“Be True To Your Bar’) are delicious indeed.

“Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”:

Best Albums of 2015: Honorable Mentions

I’m limiting myself to a top ten list for best albums this year. Tomorrow, the countdown begins, one per day for the next ten days. As a prelude, here are a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut, in alphabetical order by artist:

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Sarah Cracknell, “Red Kite”

Bypassing the dance-pop of both her last solo album (1997’s Lipslide) and Words and Music by Saint Etienne, Cracknell returns with pastoral folk rock—not a likely fit for the queen of effortless cool, but it mostly works, especially when she leans towards that spectrum’s poppier side (“Nothing Left To Talk About”, “Hearts Are For Breaking”).

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Destroyer, “Poison Season”

Dan Bejar was never going to top Kaputt, and although this opts for a noticeably different, more organic, orchestral feel, it generally plays like a logical progression from its predecessor. Still, who would have expected to spot such influences as Bruce Springsteen (“Dream Lover”), Tin Pan Alley (the second half of “Bangkok”) or, um, the old theme to The People’s Court (“Midnight Meets The Rain”)?

José González - Vestiges & Claws

Jose Gonzalez, “Vestiges and Claws”

This Swedish folksinger’s first effort in eight years initially sounds a little monochromatic; however, as with the last Kings of Convenience record (now six years ago!), it’s an intentional part of the overall, intricate design. The irresistibly rhythmic “Let It Carry You” remains the highlight; however, with each spin, additional bits and pieces have begun leaving imprints.

21st-Century-Ballads

Emm Gryner, “21st Century Ballads”

Exactly what the title claims, and admittedly a challenging listen from someone who always balanced out her more introspective moments with gloriously catchy, radio-friendly anthems. Fortunately, opener “The Race” is as good as anything she’s ever done, and much of the rest is interesting enough that she remains a mostly unknown artist still worth seeking out.

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Joanna Newsom, “Divers”

The title track (whose Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video I’ve posted above) may be the loveliest thing she’s done thus far, and while the rest is more approachable than some of her earlier, impenetrable stuff (think Ys), I’m still trying to decipher much of it. As with Gonzalez, I’m willing to work to find those hidden pearls—especially after witnessing how delightful she was in Anderson’s last feature.

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Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”

Finally, vindication that their last record, 2005’s overrated sludgefest The Woods was not entirely the direction they meant to take. Although this reunion album doesn’t hold a candle to anything spanning Dig Me Out to One Beat, the world of indie rock was a little lacking without Corin and Carrie’s overlapping words and guitars (and Janet’s fierce drumming), so call it a welcome, unexpected return.

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Twin Shadow, “Eclipse”

Half of this LP plays like a singles collection, and I can’t fathom why the top 40 has turned a deaf ear to euphoric, 80s-inspired gems such as “When The Lights Turn Out”, “Old Love/New Love” and “I’m Ready”, especially in a year when something inferior like Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” gets played to death. Granted, Eclipse’s other half is moodier and far less consistent, but in the iTunes era, half a great album is nothing to scoff at.

Favorite Albums: 2010-2014

 

Having recently posted my top 25 movies of the first half of the 2010’s, here’s the same for favorite albums of that period.

I came up with the top three right away, although I debated the order. Gryner ends up at # 1 because it’s the flawless ten-song pop album I always hoped she’d deliver (you likely haven’t heard of it—despite a nearly 20-year career, this Canadian singer/songwriter has remained obscure due to releasing all of her music (save one early major-label album) independently.) Kaputt is still a singular listen (yacht rock equal parts Steely Dan and Pet Shop Boys), taking me to an unlikely happy place every time, while Random Access Memories is the rare zeitgeist release that aptly sums up the past, defines the present and looks ahead to the future.

Based on year-end best-of lists, I’m not surprised I Know What Love Isn’t, Dottie’s Charms and Heartthrob all ended up in the top ten, since each originally placed at # 1 or 2 in their respective years (and, despite being only my fifth-favorite Saint Etienne album, Words and Music… is admittedly pretty good). With hindsight, 2010 had a few shifts: One Life Stand (#3 in 2010) and I Speak Because I Can (#4) now rate higher than Love and Its Opposite (#1) and IRM (#2)—let’s just say that the Thorn and Gainsbourg albums were fervently anticipated at the time, while I initially had no expectations for the others. The one record that has grown on me the most is Pickin’ Up The Pieces: #5 in 2011, it’s nearly as perfect a ten-song pop album as Northern Gospel.

As with the 2000’s (and as I get older), it’s a challenge trying to recognize any trends here. I find myself increasingly relying on new releases by artists familiar to me, so when a Haim or Janelle Monae emerges, it’s a big deal—especially as some longtime favorites take increasingly longer breaks between releases (I’m looking at you, Apple, Lekman, Saadiq, Thorn and Robyn). Fortunately, 2015 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for new music; I’ve already heard at least four albums that would easily place on this list.

1. Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel
2. Destroyer, Kaputt
3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
4. Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
5. Fitz and the Tantrums, Pickin’ Up The Pieces
6. Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can
7. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
8. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
9. Saint Etienne, Words and Music By Saint Etienne
10. Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
11. Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
12. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
13. Future Islands, Singles
14. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
15. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
16. The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
17. Haim, Days Are Gone
18. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
19. Sam Phillips, Push Any Button
20. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
21. Robyn, Body Talk
22. Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM
23. Alison Moyet, The Minutes
24. Rufus Wainwright, Out Of The Game
25. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues