Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Murray Lightburn and Hawksley Workman

Murray A. Lightburn – Hear Me Out (Dangerbird)

Hawksley Workman – Median Age Wasteland (Isadora)

On Murray Lightburn’s second solo outing, the singer best known for his 20 years fronting Montreal rock band the Dears teamed up with jazz players, a string section, and some old friends (including Ariel Engle of LaForce, whom I first saw open for the Dears more than 15 years ago with her first band, Moufette). Together they create a late-night, melancholy soul record that brings out the best in Lightburn’s voice and his songwriting.

If the Dears were always about the grand gesture and bombast, Lightburn’s solo work is decidedly low-key. Musically, that is. The light touch not only puts the depth and range of his voice into sharper focus, but also illustrates his lyrical eye, which can be wistful and wise (“Anew”) or weird and wry (“Fan Fiction (Ballad of a Genius)”). Producer Howard Bilerman (Basia Bulat, Arcade Fire) captures the mood with gentle grandeur; Scott Walker’s early records were likely an inspiration. Even if you were never a Dears fan—in fact, especially if you were never a Dears fan—Lightburn’s latest definitely deserves a hearing.

Lightburn is also behind the boards for the 14th (!) studio album by Hawksley Workman. That’s an interesting choice for Workman, who has a side career producing others, including very early records by Tegan and Sara, Serena Ryder and Hey Rosetta. But for the prolific singer/songwriter’s first record in an unusually dry four years, he turned to Lightburn for some outside guidance.

It helps. A lot. Workman is insanely talented: as a singer, a drummer, a writer and a producer. But many of his records fell into the trap of “first-thought-best-thought,” which for him meant a lot of cringe-worthy lyrics and odd production decisions. In the press release for this record, he writes, candidly, “I’ve always had this constant hunger to innovate, re-evaluate what I do, and keep remaking it to confuse myself and maybe confuse my audience. This time, I’m just committing to writing focused and honest songs.”

And so Median Age Wasteland finds Workman playing it straight: folkie pop-rock that sounds identifiably Canadian (this is a compliment). Lead track “Birds in Train Stations” even owes a tiny melodic debt to Bruce Cockburn’s “All the Diamonds in the World.” When he inevitably turns up the testosterone on a track like “To Receive,” he proves that he’s one of the only singers in this country who could successfully begin a song with a line about “the retired pharmaceutical baron and his silver-haired, beautiful wife,” delivered with full gusto.

When the album falters, it’s when Workman is in an overly nostalgic mood. Songs like “Battlefords” and “1983” name-drop banana-seat bikes, Vic 20 computers and other childhood mementoes of someone in their forties. It’s quaint, cute and certainly paints a picture of a specific point in time, but it’s no substitute for storytelling or a vivid character portrait—things that Workman ably proves he can do elsewhere (“To Receive,” “Skinny Wolf”).

These aren’t comeback records per se, but they do mark key turning points in each man’s career. Wonder if they ever talked about that.

Stream Hawksley Workman: “Birds in Train Stations,” “To Receive,” “Stoners Never Dream”

Stream Murray Lightburn: “Hear Me Out,” “Changed My Ways,” “When They See Me”

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