by Mark Anthony Brennan
Release Date: May 27th, 2014
Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer have been kicking around the Victoria music scene for over 10 years now. In that time they have cemented their reputation as one of the premier purveyors of Canada’s West Coast sound, i.e. indie folk rock. Even though they have, in fact, been a trio for most of their existence, their recorded music has always been a simple, economical affair. For long-term fans, then, it may come as a bit of a surprise that on their fifth album Jon and Roy are not expanding their horizons, but actually restricting them. In the past we’ve heard strains of blues, reggae and hip-hop, but not here – this is strictly countrified folk rock. And it’s mellower then ever. So, are they beating a retreat to safer ground? Or, are they simply distilling out other influence and focusing their energies on what they do best?
Middleton, the band’s primary songwriter, assures us that it is the latter case. “Musically, the songs on ‘By My Side‘ are linked,” he states, “in the sense that they are all chorus-driven and more concise in structure than on previous releases. This album is more cohesive.”
The stylistic range is certainly limited, if that is what they mean by cohesion. And there is no question that if you value J & R for their ability to play soothing, ‘feel good’ songs then they are indeed playing up to their strength. Middleton’s singing voice has an appealing huskiness to it, well suited to delivering relatively undemanding songs at an easy pace. This is perhaps best exemplified on “Moonrise”, a gently rolling number that features some nice harmonica in addition Middleton’s signature acoustic guitar. “And I go down towards,” he sings, “And I go inside/And the light finds me/In my heart and mind.” All cynicism aside, this is lovely stuff that leaves you with a warm feeling deep inside.
On the other hand, the album can leave you frustrated if you are looking for more diversity in their sound, or even just some variety in the pacing. There is nothing here along the lines of the rollicking “Vibrant Scene” (from ‘Let It Go‘) or the rhythmic “Cuban Bee” (from ‘Home‘). J & R are not breaking any new ground here, musically, stylistically or lyrically. They aren’t even trying.
But it all boils down to how you look at it. The band states that they are striving to be more concise and cohesive, so you could easily make the case that they are successful on their own terms at least. There is also no doubt that they earnestly believe in the positive power of their music. “You can come to me/With your trouble in mind,” goes the song “Trouble in Mind”, “And my darling I will be/There to hold you up fine”.