Chameleonic Canadian, Abigail Lapell, weaves a magical web of off kilter charm and retro influences.
Release date: 22nd April 2022
Label: Outside Music
Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital
Why am I never surprised, whenever I come across an established artist, yet new to me, to discover they are Canadian? It seems the country is chock full of untapped talent, quite apart even from the bedrock of known and revered talent, suggesting we only ever get to east fraction of what is there for the offering. Abigail is one such talent and this is her, who knew, fourth release. And like all, it seems, Canadian artists, she is the recipient of multiple Canadian awards, 2017’s Contemporary (Folk) Album of the year, and 2020’s English Language Songwriter of the year, in her case. So, yes, file under folk, it says here, but this is no fey tinkly acousticana, there is an additional full band here, capable of evoking a multitude of moods from texpert fingertips, and with the strength of songs to merit such accompaniment.
Land of Plenty introduces the album, and the plucked guitar and background organ swell has you immediately in the world of the poor immigrant, pitied or otherwise. With the same effortless sense of grandeur that Gillian Welch can bring to a song, and her smoky alto not a million miles removed, with hints also of Karen Dalton to the side, this new song sounds as weathered as the hulk drawing into Prince Edward Island’s headland. OK, the lyrics are more ambiguous, the soldier arriving and seeking the sailor’s daughter could stem from any century, but that was the image seared into my imagination, a song of hope for the greener grass of relocation. A promising start, is then strengthened by Ships, another maritime theme. A rhythm section kick in here, electric guitar and drums, together providing an organic chug that, of all people, has me thinking of JJ Cale. But rather than a dusty croak, Lapell’s voice soars, double-tracked and shared with Katie Moore, swooping around the backbeat. A sax break is hugely rousing, a horn section having slunk in around the second verse, the sort of joyful honk that has you just knowing the player is wearing his hat indoors.
Pines captures a woodland walk through the aforesaid trees, this time with piano to the fore, in the archetypal style of Neil Young, all playing with the gloves on chunky notes. With Moore’s backing vocals, the chorus is upbeat and has me smiling, all the more as the (inevitable) mouth harp kicks in. Terrific. The mournful Scarlet Fever is another solid construct that could, voice apart, again come from her fellow countryman, specifically in Dani Nash’s drums, near a full step behind, appropriately and admirably, the fever bed depersonalisation made real. Some fiddle, Rachel Cardiello, further conveys the portentous ambience in the room, slotting alongside Peggy Lee’s cello. A quarantine tale with an uncertain resolution. All Dressed Up then gives another contrast, back to, possibly, Lapell’s formative years, and is another song grafted from the wires of the old Americana song book. Or should that be Canadiana. Relatively simple in structure, this song, with fingerpicked accompaniment, has a wistful melody that sticks, Chris Velan drafted in on additional voice.
I See Music has us back on Sugar Mountain, rippling piano embedding the vocal/backing vocals, meshed and melded with offhand precision, the entry of the brass section cutting through with a sudden gusto, as unexpected as it is a delight. “Now we’re howling at the neon moon, spinning madly in and out of tune“, and I’ll definitely have some of that. Waterfall takes several steps back, a pause for reflection, with a harmonica solo that raises the pathos to a whole higher level. Which is the appropriate moment for the title track to appear, a steel guitar weaving around a refrain that smacks, unmistakably, of Sandy Denny’s songwriting. Sure, the voice doesn’t, it doesn’t need to, but you can imagine her voice, possibly alongside Lapell’s looser alto, the backing here all Island records, class of 1969-73. That’s the pink label, I should add, trainspotters, even if the timeline is a tad askew. This is a wonderful near four minutes and took me by surprise.
Sewage falls a little flat thereafter, what song couldn’t. A song of the planet’s destruction, sewage in our veins(!?), I guess it is as much a warning shot as prediction. Old Flames similarly, for all of the shimmery echo of, possibly, Bruce’s I’m On Fire, needs a bit more of the focus that permeates most else of this release, although I sense it may be a grower. In fact, as I write, the memory of the tune is beginning to burrow in my ear, which bodes well. Final track, I Can’t Believe, graced by Fats Kaplan’s time warped steel, is a another, and a final, sidestepping highlight, a sepia tinted love song, the closing credits for a 1950s weepy, late night at the drive-in, candy floss, cheesy harmonica and altogether a song I can hear Margo Timmins performing, the video in period costume and, definitely, black and white.
Now don’t get me wrong, as, despite all these name drops and references, you would be very mistaken in thinking Lapell no more than a human juke-box. She has a voice that, for all the ghosts of others, is very much her own, and these are all songs that stand up in their own right, rather than as facsimiles. It would be, I believe, as inviting to someone immune to and unaware of these ‘influences’, if indeed they are, seeming other than knowing, more unconscious and nuanced. This all makes for a talent that cries out for wider recognition, the songs for a larger public.
Here’s Ships, one of the singles from the album: