The best album of 2013 that I didn’t get around to reviewing until 2014:
Nick Buzz – A Quiet Evening at Home (Six Shooter)
Martin Tielli and Nick Buzz released their long-awaited second album (17 years after their first) on 2013’s Labour Day weekend, a hectic time of year, both in life and for new releases. That’s going to be my excuse for only coming to fully appreciate the genius of A Quiet Evening at Home now, four months later. Nick Buzz is music best experienced during hibernation: it’s complex, operatic, layered and cinematic.
Tielli, who helped redefine Canadian rock with the Rheostatics, is the voice and lyricist of Nick Buzz; anyone who’s ever loved his music needs to hear this, which is the most fascinating work he’s done since his 2001 solo debut.
But his bandmates are absolutely integral; this is a project where long-suffering sidemen all deserve equal billing: violinist Hugh Marsh, Jonathan Goldsmith and Rob Piltch, all of whom played with Bruce Cockburn or Mary Margaret O’Hara or both. Here, they combine decades of experience in improvisation, soundtracks, folk and art music to craft cabaret music from an avant-garde radio play.
Tielli’s songs are fully formed enough to be played unaccompanied (“The Happy Matador” could be a Spanish folk song), but Nick Buzz pull everything apart, inserting arpeggiating synths, textural violins, distorted kalimbas, classical piano and ambient textures to create something much larger and immersive. There are no obvious nods to time or place, to obvious influence or innovation: “Stop living in the past / forget about tomorrow,” sings Tielli.
If the music is otherworldly, Tielli’s lyrics convey narrators out of time, out of step and coping with loss. He’s bewildered, bemused and occasionally fantastical: “The Hens Lay Everyday” is set to a crunching electronic beat and Beach Boy harmonies, with lyrics about a musical virus that consumes everyone who hears it: “And those who can’t dance will be able to dance / and those who can will die.”
If there is any comparison to be made here, it is to Scott Walker, the enigmatic American expat crooner who started out in the late ’60s trying to channel Jacques Brel (there’s a fantastic Brel cover on this Nick Buzz album) and became progressively more abstract and strange with age. Tielli has covered Walker before; he’s nowhere near as abrasive and obtuse as Walker is now, but they are definitely similar travellers.
This group is old, weird, out of the loop, and Canadian—it’s hard to envision a marketing strategy. Like any run-of-the-mill, slow-burning, richly rewarding art rock masterpiece, it’s easy for this Nick Buzz album to disappear quickly into the ether. Don’t let it happen. (Jan. 9)