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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: Jason Plumb And The Willing - Wide Open Music: Songs For Saskatchewan

Jason Plumb And The Willing – Wide Open Music: Songs For Saskatchewan
2009, Soccer Mom Records

I have referenced Jason Plumb many times over in this blog, reviewing his previous album, Beauty In This World. I have also seen him in concert a handful of times over the years with his first band, The Waltons. The Regina, Saskatchewan-based singer/songwriter is a national treasure for Canada. He is perhaps one of the most talented songwriters of his generation, creating a body of work that draws equally on his love of classic Country music, British Pop and melancholy forms. Plumb has composed for television (Friends) and movies (Borderline Normal, Remembering Tom, Naked In New York) and has even taken over the production boards for artists such as Heidi Little and Nicol Lischka, but it is writing and performing that continues to drive him 20 years into what’s become a magnificent career in music. On June 9, 2009, Jason Plumb And The Willing released Wide Open Music: Songs For Saskatchewan in Canada (likely US release date in September, 2009). The album is a re-working of classic songs from Plumb’s catalog both as a solo artist and with The Waltons, as well as two newer songs. If you aren’t in the know when it comes to Jason Plumb, now is the time.

Wide Open Music opens with Empire On The Plains, a moderate rocker that features Plumb’s angelic voice and the sense of melancholy and longing that seems to pervade his music. Written about the need to touch base in a place that’s home from time-to-time, the song stands as one that anyone who’s ever spent any time on the road can relate to. Drive is a recent addition in Plumb’s catalog, coming from 2007’s Beauty In This World. This particular version was recorded live and shows the fine blend of Brit Pop and Country that has become something of a trademark for Plumb. Wascana originally appeared on The Walton’s Cocks Crow album, and gets the royal treatment here with gorgeous yet subtle harmonies from The Willing, and a more open vocal line that really shows off Plumb’s pipes.

Wide Open is from Jason Plumb’s Under & Over album and is a paean to life on the Canadian Prairie. The lyric imagery in this song is as beautiful as the melody Plumb wraps it in, and the arrangement reflects the urgency to get back to the place he calls home. The Waterwell And The Farmer’s Hand is perhaps the first song that hooked me on Plumb as a songwriter; taken from The Walton’s debut album, Lik My Trakter, Waterwell is about the ties to family and home that bind many of us. Written over 17 years ago in response to the death of his grandfather, it was at the time an incredibly poignant and atypically deep song for a songwriter as young as Plumb was at the time. I remember listening to this song at a show where The Waltons were opening for the Barenaked Ladies and being absolutely blown away. Nearly twenty years on this is still one of the finest pop songs I’ve ever heard, and the arrangement offered here is fuller and richer than the original.

Take My Breath opens with a brief vocal harmony interval that sounds like it should have been written by Brian Wilson before opening into a gorgeous melody line ensconced in a simple yet engaging pop arrangement. This song was written as a commission for Saskatchewan tourism and is absolutely inspired. Heartless originally appeared on Cock’s Crow, and is presented with a bit of a country swing here. The song is a bit too subtle and reserved to really get you dancing, but the temptation will be there nonetheless. The vocal harmonies in the break are amazing, and as they fall away Plumb gets a few lines where it’s essentially just his voice. Wow.

Middle Of Nowhere has long been one of my favorite songs from The Waltons (Empire Hotel). The song explores that mix of adolescent contempt for the place we grew up with the sentimental love that develops over time as we mature and return to our roots. Saskatoon Pie (Empire Hotel) uses a favorite desert (known as Serviceberry Pie is the United States) of Saskatchewan as a symbol for finding sweetness in life, and could easily be mistaken as a love song. Paint The World Green is a song Plumb wrote as a theme song for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. It’s unusually poppy and pretty for a football team song and could easily cross over as a theme for “green” causes as well. The album closes out with a bluegrass version of Wide Open that is entirely fitting and, if possible, even better than the original.

Jason Plumb is the consummate artist, a singer-songwriter whose list of peers could be written on a small Post-It note in large, scrawling script. His ability to get at the heart of anything he writes about is surreal. There is no one in popular music these days quite like him. The song Middle Of Nowhere, as much as any other here proves a universal point about Wide Open Music; These songs were written about or inspired by Saskatchewan, and are specific in detail, but the songs are about home. Anyone with a love for the place they started out (particularly if you’ve left it behind over time) will find a deep connection to this album. The arrangements are incredible, and The Willing provide the backbone and flesh for Plumb’s songs with amazingly tight musicianship. Wide Open Music: Songs For Saskatchewan is destined to be one of the top releases of 2009, and likely to get a lot of buzz when it comes time for Canada’s Juno Award nominations (not to mention the Western Canadian Music Awards). Don’t let the title fool you; you don’t need to be from Saskatchewan to connect with this CD. Wide Open Music is a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc. Miss this one and you’re really missing out.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

You can learn more about Jason Plumb And The Willing at or on MySpace. You can purchase a copy of Wide Open Music: Songs For Saskatchewan from Maple

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