Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Zaac Pick's Fierce Wind Will Blow You Away

Fierce Wind is an apt title for Zaac Pick’s first solo EP (Pick was part of Vancouver’s Doubting Paris, whose members provide plenty of support here). From the initial syncopated picking of the opening of “Bad Dream”, I was blown away. Pick has crafted six gorgeous songs here, drawing on folk, roots and indie pop influences, using a variety of instrumentation (including strings), but all the while maintaining balance and elegance. As is the case with many singer/songwriters, the core strength here is Pick’s voice: pure, simple, honest, almost whispered (think Sam Beam or M. Ward), all balanced against warm, engaging sounds with guitar as the focus.

Fierce Wind was produced by Daniel Mendez (Dashboard Confessional, Duran Duran), and the indie/emo gloss is definitely there. But Mendez is restrained in his production, knowing that, unlike those other bands, production here is meant to support the musician and not fill in any flawed gaps. There are no gaps on this record.

The promotional material describes the EP as sparse and unencumbered. I am not sure about the sparse part: tracks like “Bad Dream” feature pretty arrangements which emerge over the course of the song, layers of strings, lap steel, and eventually electric guitar. Not sparse but certainly elegant. Pick does a wonderful job of building up these sounds over a syncopated guitar, as if to emphasize the ‘badness’ of the dream, which is blown away at the end of the track by a return to the simple beat.

“Maybelline” is definitely a radio worthy single: the track features pretty strummed guitar and a lilting beat which makes you feel like driving with the windows down on a summer evening. The pace and emotion of the song reflect its message – that Maybelline, growing tired of her life, should get ‘a million miles away’. With that pretty refrain in the chorus, and some nice mandolin lines, you’ll be convinced to take off right now. As an added touch, near the end of the song, subtle backup vocals add character, reiterating “it don’t matter”.

A waltzy folk tune, “Summer Moon” captures the mood perfectly – mellow strumming, Pick’s soothing but worried voice, expressing sadness over the decline of a relationship – “There’s a sorrow in the air between us, leaves me wondering when it was you stopped believing”. The strings here are brilliant, with the low cello coming through after that first chorus, like a sad wind. Later, Pick’s lovely voice and the cello (with other strings) interact beautifully, a stunning dance between the two, reflecting what there was in the relationship. As is this case on many of these tracks, Zaac Pick is able to convey extreme and sometimes contradictory emotions with grace and confidence.

“Foot of Pride” is more of a traditional country folk tune, slow but intricate guitar picking giving way to steel (something Pick had recently been learning) and light percussion. Pick demonstrates the truism that less is often more – the song simply conveys a genuine sentiment of criticism but delivered in such a kind way that the recipient can’t help but listen. It’s so genuine that you wonder whether the ‘you’ in the song is the writer himself.

The next track, “My Century”, is traditional roots storytelling in song: gentle finger picking and noble lyrics. Ambitious in scope, the lyrics convey the melancholy in believing you’ve only played a rather small part in a big, changing world. Pick is philosophical, returning to the personal as the only solution:

“If you find a lover, then treat her like no other till the day that you die
and when you get to my age I hope the lines on your face are something you wouldn’t hide
but these days you got no patience to wait so busy tryin’ to get old
and I wonder what for, I wonder what for”

The song ends with a humble request to play ‘my favourite songs’ at the funeral, all buttressed by heart-wrenching strings and Pick’s gentle voice.

Fierce Wind ends with the lush, mellow “Drifters”. Pick continues the slow strumming guitar buttressed by gorgeous lap steel. This track reminds me, in style and mood, of John Bottomley’s great CD, Blackberry (the fruit, that is). Natural elements are touchstones for human emotions, and Pick draws them into the real with his voice and lyrics. This is a song of penance and fear, ending in Pick’s voice picking up, pleading, pain apparent, with lovely soothing backup vocals, and a stunning conclusion with his voice alone:

“When you’re lost from the shore
And you’re caught where the current runs strong
If you’re drifting in doubt
And your heart knows the distance is long
There’s a hurt in her touch
But you need it as much
As you need anything in your life.”

I usually pick out a few standout tracks on any record, songs that are truly representative of the artist and the best of the artist. I couldn’t choose any from this EP, since all six stand out like jewels. This is a fabulous effort from a superb Canadian artist. All the elements are there for great music: pretty and solid song structure, thoughtful lyrics, gorgeous melodies, lovely orchestration, and sublime production. The supporting musicians are incredible. And all recorded in Pick’s kitchen! (Even the packaging of the CD is meticulous – a pretty, simply designed paper case in an opaque sleeve, no plastic, and numbered!). Buy this CD, and check out Zaac Pick live:

My Century - Zaac Pick from JLP Studios on Vimeo.

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