More masterful transatlantic root-bending from Canada-based Gàidhl, Ewan MacIntyre.
Release Date: 30th April 2023
Label: Broken Car Recordz (Distributed by LANDr)
Formats: CD, Download, Streaming
There’s no doubt about it – the enforced isolation of the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns has turned out to have had some highly positive side effects. Take Ewan MacIntyre, for example. He had good reason to expect that the tribulations of the foregoing six months were coming to an end when he released his last album, the wonderful Dream on Sally, in November 2020. But no, the enforced isolation continued, albeit in fits and starts and Ewan took the opportunity to hide away once again and dream up more of that masterful roots-based, jazz and blues-infused music that is his stock-in-trade and which made Dream On Sally such an engaging delight. And the great news is that Twenty First Century Fool, his new – his fourth – collection, is, if I can venture to suggest… his best yet!
Written during the 2021 lockdown, Twenty First Century Fool was recorded, during windows between lockdowns and curfews, in Montreal and completed in 2022 on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. Rather than the supplemented trio format that Ewan engaged for Dream On Sally, he’s opted this time to use a full band and has been rewarded with a sound that’s lush, rich and powerful. Of course, it helps tremendously that the musicians he’s selected are all masters of their craft; Karine Bouchard (cello), Antoine Larocque (accordion) and Amanda Gibeau (violin) all featured on Dream on Sally and, this time around Ewan has added the skills of Etienne Lambert (drums), Arthur Smith (guitar), Chester Alarie (basses) and Dana Babineau-Burns (backing vocals) to flesh out the sound. The arrangements for Karine’s and Amanda’s strings feature strongly throughout the album, adding hugely to the richness of the sound and helping to retain the Celtic feel that underpins the jazzy explorations.
As well as providing the chance to concentrate on composition, isolation was also the inspiration behind the themes that Ewan has chosen to explore on Twenty First Century Fool. Social commentary, cynicism, the desire for freedom and the challenges of following your dreams all feature, sometimes more than once, in the songs. As lockdown wore its weary course, Ewan also found that his longing to return to his native Scotland (he’s been based in Montreal since 2014) took an ever-stronger grip and it was that longing that inspired him to take his first steps in Gàidhlig songwriting.
The jazzy, bluesy opening track, Fall in Canada sets the template for the delights to follow; Ewan delivers a relaxed vocal to the perfect accompaniment of strings, solid bass and a slow, positive rhythm and, as Ewan and Arthur add the first of many glorious guitar solos, the listener gets an appetizing foretaste of the deeply layered sound that permeates this album.
A frantic guitar figure sets the pace for Horizontal Man, one of the more straightforward rock numbers on the album. The band is as tight as a seized wheel nut and the splashes of accordion from Antoine add an irresistible flavour of Zydeco. We get an informative insight into the workings of Ewan’s mind with the excellent Caterpillar. Originally envisaged as a blues number, the tune has metamorphosized into a 6/8 jig dressed in a thin veneer of prog rock clothing. Ewan’s Celtic roots are worn loudly and proudly in the instrumentation whilst, vocally, he manages to sound like a frenzied Marc Bolan.
Inspired by the authoritarian ability of governments and communities to strip us of our liberties, A Bhith Saor – the first of the album’s two Gàidhlig compositions – is a commentary on the paradoxical nature of freedom. The title translates as To be free. The verses are folky and intimate, with the strings and Etienne’s bodhrán-like drumbeat providing a rootsy anchor, whilst the instrumental sections of the song are a deep, soothing blend of those Celtic roots and something altogether more jazzy.
Ewan duets with Dana on the slow, bluesy Any Doubt, and the pair combine exquisitely. The lazy, bluesy feel of the song is enhanced by Chester’s wonderful double bass and the delicious slide guitar adds the cherry to the top of an already very tasty morsel. Any Doubt is one of several songs that explore the challenges of following dreams, and the punchy What in the World is another. An altogether more raucous number, What in the World also features marvelous harmony vocals from Ewan and Dana and the band combine to give the song an easy, jazzy, summery feel.
Seòladair Na H-Inntinn (traveller of the mind), the second of Ewan’s two exercises in Gàidhlig songwriting, is blessed with what is, perhaps, the richest sound on the album. Chester’s bass is solid and resonant, Etienne’s drums are crisp and metronomic and Karine and Amanda are as wonderful as ever. The song’s connection with Gàidhlig tradition may be tenuous, despite the lyrics, but with music as lush, jazzy and overwhelmingly brilliant as this, who cares?
This excellent short collection is brought to its close with Ode to the West, a dramatic tune worthy of consideration of the theme for any Spaghetti Western that anyone might fancy making some day. Antoine’s accordion underpins a powerful tune and Etienne’s drums surge in power as the song builds towards its dramatic climax. It’s an invigorating end to a superb album.
And Twenty First Century Fool is, indeed, superb. It’s an album that’s already on my list as a contender for my Album of the Year, and I’m sure that I’ll be playing it pretty regularly during the weeks and months to come. May I suggest that you do yourself a favour and give it a listen. I doubt that you’ll be disappointed.
Watch the official video to Dream on Sally, the title track to Ewan MacIntyre’s 2020 album, here: