Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reviews:: Nick Zubeck Tracker

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If you simply look at a map, it’s hard to see Canada and realize the vastness of our land. Sure it’s huge, but naturally you’d assume the population to be larger and much denser than it really is. In reality, as Nic and I learned as we drove from Vancouver to Halifax - even with the suburban sprawl constantly extending its reach - the distance between the major metropolis makes it incredibly hard for cities to communicate with each other and impossible to create any continuity.

You can’t hop in a van and hit three major cities without driving 12 hours like you could in say, New York, Pittsburgh or Seattle. No, if you are in Calgary, Halifax or Vancouver, it’s an ordeal to get from town to town, touring becomes an expensive idea and that distance dramatically impacts our music scene. Instead of National acts, we get pockets of sounds that define by the city instead of the bands. Montreal. Toronto. Vancouver. Despite the amazing diversity the scenes have to offer – don’t believe us, check out the herohill mixtape project – more often than not, bands are grouped by location and a few iconic success stories. It would be wrong to say Toronto is defined by the members of the BSS or that Montreal is summed up by The Arcade Fire, but that’s what people have come to expect.

So what happens if your sound doesn’t fit the zip code? Well, like living in 90211, chances are you will have a tougher go of it, and struggle to get respect and riches. Case in point - Nick Zubeck. This Toronto based multi-instrumentalist is as talented a musician as you’ll find in the Great White North, but for some reason even his own city isn’t embracing his talent and escaping outside of it is a daunting task. His new record – Tracker – was just released and it’s almost impossible to find mention of it.

It seems that Zubeck is destined to hover in the background, away from those actively seeking attention for their art (which is actually the type of person most deserving of acclaim). He avoids PR tricks and open letters to publications and seemingly forgot about anything outside the constraints of actually making his record. Even a quick glance of his nonexistent one-sheet would attract your eye. Tracker was engineered by someone (Jeremy Darby) who has helped guide some of the biggest names in rock. It was co-produced by a critically acclaimed Canadian musician (Sandro Perri) and Zubeck already plays/played in a wealth of bands that basically defined the Canadian blog-osphere (Great Lake Swimmers, Polmo Polpo, Barzin), but for some reason we are left to discover the songs randomly by clicking on the new releases section of a Canadian based digital record store.

Zubeck’s sound is as diverse as the culture and population of the city he calls home and the textures fuse together in a way that defies classification. Even on a single listen to the opening track – Sentimental Devil - the ambition of Nick’s song writing jumps out of the speakers. Instead of finding a single riff and letting it progress, he grabs your ear with a flute, head nodding bass and percussion. Obviously drawing from experience and driven by experiment, Nick constantly battles his obsession for sonic exploration with his ability to craft shimmering tones. Vocally, I often hear similarities with Canadian icon Ron Sexsmith, but the adventures that dance behind the comforting vocal lines are astonishing and help him stand out.

I lived in Toronto for a few years, so a lot of this triggers a lot memories. I heard the Bob James percussion and jazz guitar he uses on Body Parts seeping out onto the Rex patio as I drank pints of 50, but the feedback he throws in would be more familiar to tiny venues on College. He’s able to blur the lines between the different sections of the city, as evidenced by the flow into lo-fi, angry folk on Track and Field, and in reality, the lines between different scenes. The angry, spare strums ground the track, but the stand up bass helps the listener transition comfortably.

But it’s the surging roots rocker Tip of My Tongue that really grabbed my ear and got me entrenched in the record. The acoustic riff would be enough to keep anyone’s attention, but Zubeck adds feedback and warbled horns giving the song some grit. It’s almost like rubbing sandpaper over a perfectly smooth surface, purposely removing the illusion of perfection, turning the track from something beautiful and into something meaningful.

It would be easy to go song by song and point out the risks Zubeck takes and surprising elements that surface. You could dwell on the push and pull; like how he takes a classic piano pop track like Cherry Sunshine – one that uses a single note to perfectly punctuate his lines – and distorts the sounds to force the listener to pay attention. You could look at how the heavy energy of Warm Blood and chaotic, classic rock feel of the album closer Schemer of Schemes uses the last seven minutes of the record to completely rip apart the comfort and sunshine the previous 10 songs worked so hard to achieve.

But focusing on single songs takes away form what makes Tracker so good. There are only two way to walk on rocky terrain with unstable footing. The first, is to tread carefully and timidly. The second – and the way Zubeck moves – is to take the challenge head on and move with bold, risky, confident strides. And that’s not to say Nick always pushes the boundaries. Yes, his songs are challenging and intricate at times, but they are extremely well-thought out. Seemingly insignificant elements like the orchestral strings that show up on Blues and Reds are used not because everyone else is trying to bulk up their sound these days, but because they complete the songs.

He also uses nice sequencing to invigorate the listen. After several tracks that refuse to let you relax, he delivers a collection of more standard numbers. The unashamed, jazz feel of Common Cold - a song that lets the spacey disco keys take center stage and tries unsuccessfully to completely hide a fantastic little blues riff - is one that any music fan should enjoy. The same can be said about the breezy textures and harmonies used so well on Food and Water or the nice keys that thicken up the straight ahead, infectious riff of Warm Blood.

Unfortunately, the end result is probably predetermined as the odds are stacked against Zubeck. Tracker will be overlooked by most who listen; judged too quickly as listeners either embrace or discard the tracks without appropriate listens. To be honest, I’m doing just that, as I’ve only had the record since Sunday and even as the play count rises, I know I’m missing so much of what Zubeck put into the songs.

Whether it’s recognized as genius, dismissed as too experimental or judged to lack the immediacy that we all seem to require in today’s digital age, Tracker will probably miss the mark for lots of critics and fans and sadly, opinions read like gospel and are usually swayed by proximity, power and presence – all of which are working against Nick. All I can do is offer my thoughts, realizing they come from a man tucked in the farthest corner of the country, but Tracker is a resounding success and one that should be embraced from coast to coast.

Posted at 10:41 AM by ack :: 1 comments

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At 3:52 PM, Blogger Katie did sayeth:

Great review. Couldn't agree more. Tracker (and Zubeck) brings definition to the concept of "music" that few musicians would dare to attempt. Incredible album.


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