Sunday, November 8, 2009

Spirit Guides - Evening Hymns

Spirit Guides

Evening Hymns
Out of This Spark Records.

SCQ Rating: 90%

Walking out into the brisk, near-freezing air of downtown Toronto, twenty minutes after midnight, I could almost fathom how Evening Hymns could create an album as gorgeously honest and natural as Spirit Guides from this locale. Perhaps this fleeting epiphany was caused by how grateful my lungs were to escape the overdressed heat of the Horseshoe Tavern, or maybe Jonas Bonnetta’s inspiration - although recorded to tape at various stations around the city – was born and nurtured amid the Peterborough lakes where he resides. However it happened, the nine tracks that constitute Spirit Guides act as an enema to the newspaper-caked streetcars and loitering police cruisers that pollute my urban commute, breathing new life into both Toronto’s indie-scene and the oft-predictable singer-songwriter tag.

‘Lanterns’ opens the disc with a lilting acoustic melody, bittersweet yet familiar, which like several of Bonnetta’s compositions is something of a red herring; settling the listener into quaint comforts before taking off to places unknown. The hint of ‘Lanterns’’s ambition can be heard in its soft backing of strings and nocturnal ambience, initially pillowing voice and guitar before sprawling outward into a sleepless highway ode of steady percussion and devastating lyrics, of which Bonnetta clings to tail-ends of words before they slip by. Where that song’s crest of horns and strings subsides, ‘Dead Deer’ laments a deliberate stillness around two lovers; its vocal-delivery and arrangement tiptoeing as if to avoid detection that an electric riff desires, occasionally delivering a one-two punch like flashing headlights. The craving and nostalgia that linger over these tracks is harnessed into the rollicking fireside rebuttal of ‘Broken Rifle’ and the building anticipation of Spirit Guides’ album highlight ‘Mountain Song’. From sparse beginnings, Bonnetta ascends (no pun intended) a massive song-structure of viola and subtle yet dexterous percussion to a peak where strings, electric guitar and a choral of unisex vocals cry out like echoes into ‘Mountain Song’’s deep chasms.

A record full of such arresting moments and versatile arrangements doesn’t come easy, and Evening Hymns enlisted some friends (from notable acts such as the Wooden Sky, D’Urbervilles, and Forest City Lovers) who add tremendous muscle to these folk-based songs. Despite these talents (especially James Bunton of Ohbijou who produced), Bonnetta maintains a firm grip on our attention-span long after his colleagues have gone home. Spirit Guides’ last-third is clearly gentler although still rife with organs and ambience, as if its protagonist’s explorations into nature have unexpectedly turned inward for the album's lonesome twilight.

I second that very notion, waiting alone for a last subway to pull me out of the downtown core. My hearing’s coming back, having lost it somewhere at the show, and I spend these pacing steps listening to ‘History Books’, the last – and fittingly solo – song on Spirit Guides. Looking back over this Out of This Spark debut’s earth-shaking highs and contemplative sighs, rounded out by instrumental blurs (the afterglow segue of ‘Mazinaw Lake’) and a rainy field-recording (the aptly titled ‘November 1st, 2008, Lakefield, Ontario’), it’s hard to shake the feeling that at this late stage, having just wandered the season’s first frost, Evening Hymns has delivered Toronto’s best record of the year.

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