Reviews:: Mark Berube What the River Gave the Boat

Keeping with the Canadian theme today, I wanted to spend a few minutes with the new release from Vancouver song writer Mark Berube. It would be easy to simplify things and say that Berube is just another talented song writer from the Great White North and let your imagination pre-determine on all of the sounds you expect to hear with that descriptor. It would be easy, but completely unfair given the ambition of his latest record – What the River Gave the Boat.

Berube mixes elements of folk, piano tonk, and spoken word in a style that results in a subdued, but very charismatic front man. The record starts with a simple piano line, but quickly jumps into a Waits-ian percussive stomp. While evoking the same imagery as the whiskey throated icon, Berube’s vocals are much smoother; like trading in your glass of whiskey for a single-malt scotch. While the bite is still there, it burns just a little less on the way down. The burst of horns completes the song, and as Cloudy Day finishes, you are cemented into the record. Pretty Little Bird continues in the same style, using a simple percussion beat and piano line, and forces you to focus on Berube’s staccato delivery. The descriptions of his characters are presented like a book-on-tape (which isn’t surprising when you consider his spoken word background), albeit with a great backdrop. Like a successful author, his words easily transport you into the fictional world he has created.

What makes Berube stand out is his diversity. He quickly jumps from the percussion heavy numbers into Cowboys, a song that uses subtle hand claps, piano and electric guitar to frame his more traditional vocals. His voice is obviously very malleable, as he moves into a more folk-friendly sound, using a beautiful, soothing approach. With each song, he seems to unveil a new side to his character, but his voice never gives up the spotlight - it is clear and powerful, whether he sings at a frantic, energetic pace (Tomorrow), a slower Rufus/Antony emotional, dark lit piano bar number (Alarms) or delivers an evocative BARR-like spoken word (Barber Shop).

Although Berube’s lyrics and voice are the stars of this production, I’d be remiss not to mention how perfectly the instrumentation supports the effort. The powerful marching drum snare and swirling strings on War Without An End slowly builds the tension and rage of Berube’s tale of a man going off to war. In the same vein, (but a completely contrasting style), the slow stand-up bass line and slow bowed strings of Running Away set the mood for the depressing song of regret. This is a record you really should pay attention to and an artist that is going to be making quality music for a long time.

MP3:: Pretty Little Bird (The Saint of Vancouver)

UPDATE:: Berube is playing here in Vancouver – the CD release party – on Aug. 23th @ Wise Hall.

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