Published Apr 30, 2019The music of Stranger Still feels minimal in nature, but is maximal in effect. The spidery guitar lines of band leader Pete Johnston are light yet oblique, consistently making their presence known. The Toronto-based Johnston, who is best known as a bassist, composer and educator (Muskox, See Through Trio, et. al), and who was once an artistic director of the Somewhere There Creative Music Festival, is here paired musically with bassist Rob Clutton. Clutton himself is a mainstay of the Toronto improvisational music scene, and he gingerly plays anchor to Johnston's buoyant-but-jagged melodies.
Johnston crafted Songs of Bread, Wine and Salt as an homage to Nova Scotian poet Alden Nowlan, who grew up in the same area as he did, albeit decades earlier. Vocalists Mim Adams and Randi Helmers breathe a sense of life and fulness into Nowlan's words, as they harmonize in a sung-spoken manner around the instrumentalists.
The four artists together are on equal footing, crafting a decidedly Canadian avant-folk tradition that at times is eerily reminiscent of Upgrade and Afterlife-era Gastr Del Sol, with its Maritime doggerel and minimal free jazz leanings.
Stranger Still treads interesting territory; Songs of Bread, Wine and Salt is both straightforward and experimental enough to appeal to a vast array of tastes. As a debut, it is a stunning, nuanced effort from a talented set of performers. (All-Set!)