The idea of culture has always enticed me, but has nonetheless struck me as odd. What is it about certain things that seem to pattern themselves in various identities, people and spaces? Sometimes it’s not even things that inherently make sense when grouped together either, yet, here it is. Heritage. Art. Stories. History through means of self expression. I love that. And, like many people, I get excited when the opportunity arises for me to talk about my culture and I get even more excited in doing so. If you have read any of my other work, I don’t think that it’s difficult to tell that I am super proud to be Canadian, and even more so to be an East-Coast girl, at home à la merveilleuse Montréal.
So, in honour of celebrating one’s culture for this month’s theme, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you one of my city’s home-grown talents, and a most favourite artist of mine. Patrick Watson is a pretty big local name, and with very good reason. The name refers both to the man himself, but also to the musical ensemble that plays with him (which is almost comparable to the size of the Polyphonic Spree, but definitely with less white robes), and the music is nothing short of an alien type of beauty. Rife with sonic experimentation and really good Jazz percussion, the album Close to Paradise has stuck with me since I was fourteen.
I’d like to talk for a moment about culture as evident in coastal music scenes. Just like most anything, environmental influences and social inspirations can shape the “signature sound” of a certain area, much like a musical accent or dialect. It separates one scene from another, and allows us to differentiate between the two.
This is true of East-Coast and West-Coast music in Canada; the two spheres are wildly different from each other, but in a way that is generally more easily recognizable to Canadians than to outside countries. Typical identifiers of West-Coast music scenes, for example, are a prevalent folk influence, a tendency to favour acoustic or string instrumentals and often times larger, more expansive sounds, some definite underlying hints of Rockabilly and Du-Wop, Bluegrass and American Primitivism stylistic influences, and an earthy, sometimes grittier and dirtier tone to the music itself on a whole. East-Coast music, in contrast, carries a rougher bite and tends to have more of an electroacoustic presence, with a tendency to favour piano and brass sections, as well as both acoustic and distorted guitar, experimentation with genres and less popular instruments (my friend wants to learn how to play the saw), and carries a major Jazz influence with some hints of Blues and sometimes Hip-Hop, as well as a tendency to borrow from Haitian or African rhythms. And, there is also a definite French influence too, both in terms of structure and approach to sound (which typically manifests in two ways: both in French Canadian cabin folk music, and in this flowery, expansive, neo-Classical style), but also notably in language, since Quebec’s official language, naturally, is French.
Patrick Watson, and this album in particular is a prime example of East-Coast music signature, nicely combined, bundled up and presented seamlessly and beautifully to the listener. In fact, if Montreal in particular had a sound, I’m quite sure it might sound something like this (maybe it’s the perpetual winter). Listening to this album is like finding yourself in an alternate universe. It is so aurally complex that the tracks verge on tangible, and appeal to the senses, and the imagination, wildly. Ingeniously crafted, the songs on this release are so effectively layered that it really feels like cracking open a storybook and stepping inside. I think one of the ways this is most evident, is in the way the lyrics so wonderfully match up with the tone of the music, a specific example being the piano trill in “Man Under the Sea”, among others.
The sounds are strange, eerie, abnormal, but so brilliant and undeniably beautiful at the same time. I think if you’re a seasoned Kate Bush, Björk or St. Vincent listener, you’ll understand what I mean. It situates you in this kind of post-dystopia, post-industrial world of rubble, I think, where nature is starting to push through the cracks and the river glistens again. It’s this interesting dialogue between destruction and beauty, chaos and order. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before. If an album is able to crawl its way into your mind and take you where it wants you to go, show you what it wants you to see and make you feel what it wants you to feel, all while leaving it up to your own interpretation, that is the most radically intimate thing it could possibly do. And that, I think, is what this album does so successfully.
I would also like to draw an extra close attention to the tracks “Slip Into Your Skin” and “The Great Escape”, which are quite probably my favourite ones on the album, and continue to resonate deep within me all these years later. I urge you to listen to them, uninterrupted, using the best quality speakers you can find. If you can, turn off the lights, but at the very least, close your eyes. Let them swallow you up for a few minutes. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Thanks for letting me share a little part of my culture with you, and I hope that wherever you may live, this album and all it echoes will find itself a tiny home in that spot underneath your sternum. Underneath that muscle looks like a good place.
Keep an ear out for: “Close to Paradise” (ample volume is advised), “Mr. Tom”, “Giver”, and “Drifters”.
Happy navigating, musical voyageurs.