Ian Tamblyn: Gyre (2009)
Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tamblyn has a lot to celebrate. He's become, in his sheer scope of subject matter, the songwriting voice of Canada, now half-way through a Four Coast Project that includes Superior: Spirit and Light (North Track, 2007). A diverse discography on his independent North Track label, and an equal amount of unreleased material, runs the gamut from folksier efforts like When Will I See You Again (1980) and The Middle Distance (1995), to the rock-inflected Dance Me Outside (1983) and the early ambient experiment of his soundtrack to Arthur Milner's 1983 play, 1997. He's released a series of instrumental albums inspired by and including natural sounds close to home (1986's Over My Head) and farther afield (1990's Magnetic North), as well as the industrial sonics of 2005's Machine Works and Like the Way You're Tinkin' (2002), an album of hammered dulcimer music.
Tamblyn also has plenty to celebrate with Gyre, which reunites him with another Canadian treasure deserving wider recognition, Scott Merritt. Merritt performed on the 1997 soundtrack, and produced The Middle Distance, an album linked in more ways than one to Gyre. Merritt co-produces Gyre with the same astute touch that's defined his own sparse but strong discography. And with Tamblyn also at the peak of his songwriting and performing prowess, Gyre is one of his best songwriting albums to date.
The Middle Distance was an album about mid-life; Gyre reflects an artist heading into senior years, and it's as dark an album as Tamblyn has delivered. Gyre means vortex, and there's no shortage of dark descent on an album that addresses death ("After the Storm," "Hurricane Heart"), the end times ("Fool's Revelation"), war ("Afghanistan") and unresolved quest ("Raven and Ray Charles"). But it's not all bleak, as hope peaks through on "You Were There," and "Sun on the Table." And while the subject matter may be dark, there's light in the music, with songs driven by a core group featuring Tamblyn, bassist George Koller, drummer Gary Craig, and electric guitarist Fred Guignon, whose contributions are never less than perfect, even if he's more often felt rather than heard.
Over the years Tamblyn's voice has aged into a warmly expressive one that never resorts to overstatement, even as he turns fervent on the roots-centeric "Fools Revelation" and plaintive on the backbeat-driven "Raven and Ray Charles." Between Tamblyn and Merritt, the relatively spare production is made more lush in spots with layered keyboards, vibes, and glockenspiel, with trumpeter/harmonicist Chris Whitley and mandolinist/harmonicist Jeff Bird adding color to "Afghanistan" and "Raven and Ray Charles" respectively.
Tamblyn may be thinking darker thoughts these days, but he's never sounded better, making Gyrehis 30th releasean album that, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its underlying nature, joins The Middle Distance and When Will I See You Again as another high point in a career that, like the artist, still has plenty of life left in it.
Track Listing: In Wonder; Low Coast Road; After the Storm; Fool's Revelation; Hurricane Heart; I am Waiting; You Were There; Raven and Ray Charles; Road to Duntroon; Sun on the Table; Afghanistan; Irene's Goodnight.
Personnel: Ian Tamblyn: vocals, acoustic guitars, organ, reed organ, broken autoharp; Jeff Bird: mandolin, harmonica; Gary Craig: drums; Fred Guignon: electric guitars, lap steel; George Koller: upright bass, acoustic fretless bass; Scott Merritt: reed organ, vibes, organ bass pedals, background vocals, organ, synth, glockenspiel; Chris Whitley: trumpet, harmonica.