(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.