February 10, 2020
Released On May 26, 2017
One of my favourite things about the world of music is that there is always something new around the corner to discover. Discovering that new music and immediately feeling a connection — well, that’s one of my favourite feelings. I think a huge thing for me is the way that something new catches my ear. I can hear a song on the radio and love it, or on someone’s playlist and immediately need the title and artist. But if I am at a concert (or a festival like where I came across Mike McKenna Jr) and the opener is someone I’ve never heard before, it’s a different feeling, a deeper connection. I just feel immediately attached and invested in the music. More often than not, the artists that were unknown to me become some of my favourites. Seeing music performed live just hits me differently. You can see the emotion, you can feel it, and you can relate to it that much more.
What I love about this album, and Mike in general, is how amazingly he can tell stories with his songs. I had the chance to meet him after his set that he played at Ottawa’s Bluesfest festival this past summer and we got to talking about his music and how amazing I thought it was. I asked where his inspiration came from and things like that, and I thought it was interesting that a lot of it was based on Nova Scotian legends and folk tales as well as actual stories from centuries past, and even some of his own family history. For someone to be able to draw from all of that and create such beautiful melodies to accompany the storytelling is the mark of an amazing singer/songwriter.
I also just enjoy how peaceful this album is. I can be having an off day or be struggling with anxiety and this album just washes it away. I just get lost in the stories that are being told, which I would much rather be lost in than whatever is going on in my own head. I am so happy that I came across Mike McKenna Jr because his music was clearly something I needed in my life. I can’t wait for his next album, but until then, there’s Pacific Northwest Bound waiting for me whenever life gets too much and I just need something beautiful and deep to get lost in.
Wistful storytelling conveyed through rootsy strings and an aural, husky voice.
I’ve written in this here newsletter on more than one occasion about pillaging my dad’s record collection. That idea was at the heart of my blurb for Issue #149, which was about an album called Dancer With Bruised Knees by Canadian singer-songwriters Kate & Anna McGarrigle. In truth, I stole the premise of that piece from another I’d been meaning to write for years, about rescuing and getting to know Fogarty’s Cove, the debut album from another Canadian named Stan Rogers. Rogers wrote about life in the Maritimes, the same region of Canada Mike McKenna Jr hails from — about shipwrecks, tides, and harbours (“ou” spelling a must, in this case). Looking back, it’s clear that finding Rogers’ perfectly provincial LP with the powerfully orange cover was a vital step toward developing an appreciation for albums that zoom in on a specific region, lifestyle, or group of people. Music that doubles as documentation. Like Fogarty’s Cove, Pacific Northwest Bound serves that age-old and deeply important function. There’s plenty of seafaring, from stories of immigration (“America”) and war (the two-part “The Chesapeake & The Shannon”) to more figurative representations of the sea, like the title track’s central metaphor of staying afloat, and the idea in “Lost” that estrangement can be so enveloping that you simply disappear into the ocean. That’s where Pacific Northwest Bound distinguishes itself — in how emotionally rich McKenna’s renderings are. Even when he’s documenting, he’s able to capture a generous sense of depth, both in his expressive singing and in the way his lyrics communicate how it feels to live the lives he’s chronicling. You can hear this dimensionality in the album’s very first lines: “I stood on the wings of America / Patched up and jaded and used.” It’s the who, the what, the where, the why, and the how of the situation, packaged as compactly as the suitcase of someone with a one-way ticket to a new land. Truly affecting, and truly impressive.
I don’t listen to as much folk-based music as I probably should, so Pacific Northwest Bound was a nice change of pace. Mike McKenna Jr’s original songs pair some lovely melodies with an invitingly campfire voice. There’s some striking lyrics, too: “A copper sunrise” and “Distances grow, we never pick up the phone / We just text, often days to reply” and “I feel the hair on my chin slowly turning to grey” are a few favorites. I appreciate the first one because of its succinctness. I’m a big fan of efficiency. Of the second line, I wondered if it was ironic or not that I listened to those words through my phone. Whichever it is, it’s also rather fitting. As for the last line, I closely identified with it because my hair, both on my head and my face, has been slowly and steadily greying since I was 19. My mom once remarked that by the time I would be her age, I’d probably have “George Clooney hair,” which is both a compliment and a bit weird. Then there’s the entirety of the traditional battle song “Bright Sunny South.” I was struck by the choice of its inclusion. At first, I wondered why Mr. McKenna would choose a song that is sympathetic to the Confederacy. It initially scanned as odd for two reasons: (1) It’s the wrong side of history, and (2) The singer is from Nova Scotia. Then I realized that it likely wasn’t chosen out of endorsement, but instead maybe out of curiosity. Or, perhaps he simply enjoyed the melody enough to want to share it. Huh…I suppose you could say that about the entire record.
Fast-paced, spastic optics contrasting with tempered, patient sounds.
I hadn’t seen my cousin in a while. He was a few years senior to me. Old enough that when I was a kid, he was in his late adolescence. When I was a teen, he was a grown man. This was really the first time in a while we’d both met eye to eye as men and decided we’d hang out for the evening. We took my new Jeep TJ — I was very proud of it and I asked him as a tore the soft-top down on a summer evening in Sydney Mines, Cape Breton, if he wanted to drive. He was delighted and said yes. He hopped in and we toured down to the coast through a small area of the town known as Cranberry, where my mother was born and grew up — her father a worker in the former mine beneath our feet. If you’ve never seen or visited Cape Breton, allow me to explain that every inch of this place is a stark combination of extraordinary natural beauty and a sort of arrested economic development bordering on depression. Beneath the island lies a history of “Men of the Deep,” mining coal for the majority of the region’s history. Its people are resourceful, proud, family-oriented, notoriously kind, dignified and yet extraordinarily humble. But what most don’t know is that music education runs as deep as the minds, passed down through traditions, family bonds, and cultural motivations as easily and powerfully as the accents, the food, the stories, and the love and support they have for one another. When you grow up in Nova Scotia as I have, you realize that your province is rich with an unsung musical history and the region of Cape Breton, takes that to a whole other level. Around here when you find out a great new artist comes from Cape Breton, it’s no surprise.
A while later, my cousin and I find ourselves sitting in a small pub with a group of his friends. They welcomed me — the city boy — to their table to share a pint. They exchanged stories of their experiences out west in Alberta at the Fort McMurray oil sands. The vast majority of them travel across the country for trade labour where they live in camps and spend more time working than they spend with their families back home in Cape Breton. So, it shouldn’t have shocked me when one of the men pulled out a guitar and offered to play a song he recently wrote, right there at the table. This was not an unfamiliar scenario, but what was unexpected to me was that the song he sang was absolutely fantastic. The poetic lyricism, the sincerity in the story of how he missed his family and resented having to be away for some of the most important parts of their lives. He belted it out passionately, meaningfully, with a raspy abandon that could have got him signed to an immediate record deal were his table filled with people who mattered and not just myself, his beer-drinking buddies and my cousin.
That sound is the same sound I hear in Mike McKenna Jr’s Pacific Northwest Bound. It’s recognizable immediately to me as the sound of a Cape Breton singer-songwriter. It’s sincere and hopeful and musically moving. His performance of it leaves no question that it’s made with thought and meaning rather than the shallow pursuit of simple pop music. It’s music to express, not music for music’s sake. Call it Americana, call it folk music, call it whatever you will, but it makes me extraordinarily happy that I am not the one who picked this record. It makes me proud of my heritage to know that the genuine sound of Cape Breton folk which is taken for granted in its home province has moved someone else, someone far away, so much that they felt the need to share it. We’re all lucky that Mike McKenna Jr bothered to make a record at all. The gentleman across the table from me wrote the song for his family and I remember regretting that nobody else would ever hear it. For many Cape Bretoners who remain joyful despite lives which are often economically challenged, the music was always the easy part. They don’t even realize how talented they are and even when they do, it’s beside the point. It’s that sincerity that makes it so special.
Most striking is how uniquely personal McKenna makes these songs feel, despite their deep history in Nova Scotian lore.
I’m from Norfolk, Virginia, a maritime town if there ever was one. We’re home to the largest US military base in the world. Our ports are a vital part of world commerce, and the salty dogs that tend to those ports perpetuate a proud heritage of stevedores, longshoreman, and various other participants in the maritime community. So, “dark and dusted off Maritime folk songs” was not a foreign concept to me when reading the credits on Mike McKenna Jr’s Bandcamp page for Pacific Northwest Bound. While these songs are heavily slanted more towards the exploration of North America, the concepts of the high seas and the great unknown rang true many of the similar themes that I grew up with. What I love most about this record is the vivid storytelling — no lyric is wasted, and the songs put you right there, in the moment. It’s like someone gave Slick Rick an acoustic guitar and a standup bass. And what was really interesting to me is that as this thought came across my mind, I also realized that collections of folk songs like these were the movies of centuries past. This is exactly how folks passed down legends, and history and culture. McKenna does a masterful job of connecting with the listener. His soulful voice channels the pain and anxiety of his forebearers perfectly. He’s got a subtle charisma that draws you into the songs, yet not so overpowering that it takes away from the story he’s telling. I feel like a road trip.
Mike McKenna Jr did basically everything right on Pacific Northwest Bound. He crafted reflective songs, each with their own low-key dynamic range. He wrote intriguing lyrics, telling stories that seem to have a basis in historical realities. He set them to delicate skeins of acoustic guitars, occasionally joined by bass, hushed percussion, fiddle, or a bit of tasteful organ or harmonica. He sang them in a slightly burred tenor with warmth and care, sometimes accompanied by a female voice, a nice touch reminiscent of the glory days of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. At first you might think he’s Irish, but he’s actually based in Montreal and has his roots in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place where you probably learn to sing before you know how to speak. If you caught him in a local bar up north, you would probably hang on every word. You might even buy something from the merch table. So, why, you might ask yourself, does the album’s title track have 99k listens on Spotify and all the rest are averaging around 3,500? That’s because the title track was serviced to a curated playlist by Spotify — and it was certainly good enough to hold its own in the realms of “Contemporary Folk” — but getting people to follow through and listen to a full album is an uphill battle these days. Yet I would submit that if he had done a few things wrong and made the song hurt a little more (as an art director once told me to do with my pictures), people would be desperate to hear the rest of the record. Think Daniel Lanois, Hiss Golden Messenger, Iron & Wine. No way you’re satisfied with just one song from those guys. All the pieces are in place for McKenna. I hope he pushes things even further on his next album, due this coming April.
I remember the feeling of learning to play guitar. Right after I graduated high school, I had become oddly curious about the guitar, with this yearning inside to really learn it and try to find something unique to me housed within its six-string frame. The following Christmas, my parents gifted me an acoustic guitar, one I still have today though with a few more marks and blemishes than when I first received it. That first year or two learning how to play — it’s downright embarrassing to think about now. I basically tried to learn how to play with just only my thumb and index finger on the frets, something I chalked up to my tiny hands, though was really just me being lazy. (To be fair, I do have small hands, but so do many of the people who frequent “Best Guitarists Of All Time” lists so why am I complaining?) I’d deconstruct songs down to their bare-bones and try to finagle a way to play them with just thumb and index finger “chords,” and I was actually able to do it for a few songs, emphasis on few. Somewhere in this misguided mess, I began to “write” my own stuff, just noodling around and trying to make some musical sense out of my own identity at the time. A couple of things sounded good, but I was never able to stretch them into full songs. They were just parts that were intriguing in five-second blasts, and boring outside of that. Nonetheless, I stretched them into full songs, some long and some short, some fast and some short. I wasn’t trying to go for any sound or style in particular — my influences at the time were mostly chamber pop, punk, and doo-wop — but I was just trying to stumble upon something that was singular to my identity and interesting to everyone who might listen. I don’t quite think I was looking for a sound like Mike McKenna Jr, but listening to Pacific Northwest Bound makes me feel it’s exactly the type of record I wanted to write. There’s some production around him, but for the most part, it’s just McKenna and his guitar seizing your attention for each song, whether slow or fast, long or short. Songs are built around his inviting guitar playing and a dynamic voice that conveys engaging stories and poignant observations, ones that resonate deep even when listening casually at work. It’s music that gives you pause, whether you’re a fan of the style or not, because there’s something innately brilliant McKenna is tapping into that compels you to listen. And that’s exactly what I tried to do all those years ago — find a way to tap into my own soul and convey it in a way that nobody could overlook. I was never able to, but I take solace in finding records like this one that clearly do, regardless of their sound or style. Funny enough, I did eventually learn how to play properly, though my small hands do still give me anxiety over travelling away from the first few frets. What’s interesting is that as I learned how to play in an actual sense, I spent less and less time trying to write something on my own. It’s almost as though finding direction made me more lost than ever, creatively speaking. But maybe it was just that I learned a direction that wasn’t right for me, because clearly McKenna’s nomadic tones here found some compass that made sense out of his intrinsic genius.
Welcome 2 Detroit by J Dilla
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford