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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

John K. Samson - City Route 85

John K. Samson is notorious for his slow output, averaging three to four years between albums since The Weakerthans formed in 1997. Of course, many would argue that such waits have been well worth it for what has ended each of them, and I would certainly be inclined to agree.

Thus, it unsurprisingly has been more than two years since the last release of a new song from him, be it solo or with The Weakerthans. Now the time has come, with last Tuesday's release of City Route 85, the first in what is to be a series of EPs exploring the roads around Winnipeg, Manitoba. It is the first solo release from Samson since the 2006 re-release of 1995's Little Pictures. Listening to the two EPs back-to-back strikingly displays the leaps and bounds of musical and lyrical maturation that have occurred over that time. City Route 85 is over almost before it starts, comprised of just three songs totaling just under ten minutes. But the brevity of this EP is made up for by the quality of the material contained therein.

Samson is man whose art is as intertwined with the city he calls home more than anyone else who I can think of. Over the years he has time and again explored the bleak city not too far north of the U.S. border, and yet clearly has not tired of mining it for material. What is impressive about all of this is that for significant percentage of his discography spent dwelling on Winnipeg in one manner or another (for example, even the "Virtute" series is in reference to the city's civic motto, "Unum cum virtute multorum," which more or less means "one with the strength of many"), he might be dealing with the same specific geographic region, but that does not mean he has been writing the same song over and over from the same point of view. On City Route 85, his ability to craft characters who exist within the confines of the city, and who define their lives in some small way by it, is in excellent form.

The production is very stripped down, consisting mostly of just Samson and his acoustic guitar. For a man whose material is so much about the lyrics, he unsurprisingly delivers under these quiet conditions where words are apt to find closer scrutiny.

"Heart of the Continent" is a fantastic little track which reminded me a bit of "One Great City!" if only for the fingerpicking. This is from the point of view of a much more limited narrator than that song, however, as opposed to some omniscient being. Further research confirmed my suspicion that both song titles referred to official slogans that Winnipeg has had.

"Grace General" explores the bleakness of winter on a dilapidated block nearby the hospital where one of the narrator's loved ones (my guess would be his wife) has recently passed on, and the helplessness and hopelessness that the narrator feels with the void left in his life.

"Cruise Night," the catchiest (and shortest) of the three songs, dwells with that common practice of young people of driving around with the music on for the sake of it, symptomatic of the lack of other things to do in town, and also a demonstration of freedom within a confined space--you may be chained to your parents and to your city by your youth and and your means, but you have enough wiggle room within your cage to buy yourself music and drive around your hometown, even if it's not even in your car. There is a great feeling of freedom and being in complete control that comes with operating a vehicle, and this song epitomizes that feeling.

So, you should most definitely pick this up. Especially on seven inch, because vinyl is awesome, ya know?

<a href="">Heart Of The Continent by John K. Samson</a>

Buy 'em up:


Arjan said...

Great review. John K. Samson is an awesome songwriter. If you want to hear him explain the origin of the song 'Heart Of The Continent', check his recent acoustic performance of it at ""

Greg said...

Thanks. These videos are fantastic, by the way. Much, much better quality than one normally finds.

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