Review : Ian Tyson - Raven Singer
PopmattersTo those who aren’t familiar with the nearly six-decades-long career of Canada’s Ian Tyson, it might seem like hyperbole to say that Tyson is Canada’s ultimate musical legend. It isn’t. Without Tyson, there very well might not be a Canadian music industry. No Gordon Lightfoot (who Tyson mentored in Lightfoot’s early years), no Neil Young, no Joni Mitchell. Perhaps no Juno Awards and no Polaris Prise. Maybe no Arcade Fire for that matter, either. Ian Tyson, as one half of the early ‘60s folk duo Ian and Sylvia, wrote what could be considered to be Canada’s first pop anthem in “Four Strong Winds”, a timeless song that feels much older than it actually is and seems almost “traditional” somehow. It’s a song that has, among listeners of a certain age, become something of a Canadian treasure: the unofficial national anthem, if you will. CBC Radio listeners named it as Canada’s No. 1 song of the 20th Century, and rightfully so. In my mind, “Four Strong Winds” could very well just be really the start of Canadian pop music: an iconic song that marks the beginning of a fledgling national music industry in much the same way that “Rock Around the Clock” is generally considered to be the official start of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural phenomenon in America. I can’t think of a single popular song in Canada written by a Canadian predating “Four Strong Winds” that had such a profound impact on the nation’s psyche. (Not counting “O Canada”, of course.) Really, if you’re a young, struggling Canadian musician (or even a music fan) and meet Tyson walking down the streets of Alberta, his home province, you pretty much owe him the shirt off your back for what he did with that one song.
However, Tyson’s career isn’t just limited to “Four Strong Winds” and his songwriting and romantic partnership with Sylvia Fricker (whom he eventually married and then later divorced). With Sylvia, he was part of a group called Great Speckled Bird that helped to pioneer a country-rock fusion sound alongside the likes of Gram Parsons. He was the host of his own Canadian variety musical TV show in the early ‘70s. And that’s not all. He’s recently penned an autobiography and has three honorary Doctorates. He’s also a member of the Order of Canada. And, aside from his career as a musician, he additionally has been a rancher for much of his life, making him something of a modern-day cowboy. Clearly, even though Tyson is now 78 years old, he has had a robust, varied and rich career, and has been oft covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Young. And now, Tyson returns to the stage with his 14th album of solo material. The dude is certainly not showing any signs of resting on his laurels as he enters his twilight years, though that might be a bit troubling considering some of the adversity he’s pulled through recently. You see, Tyson has lost his singing voice after he damaged his vocal cords at an outdoor music festival in 2006 where he was playing against a bass-heavy and loud soundboard, and his pipes were further strained by a lengthy bout of the flu he endured the following year. That makes listening to Tyson’s newest release, Raven Singer, a bit of a challenge for listeners.
While musically the album is a dazzling country album with flashes of rock here and there, as well as the presence of traditional instruments such as the bagpipes, as heard on “Blueberry Susan”, it is also hard to sometimes listen to with Tyson’s so-called “new voice” leading the fore. At times, Tyson comes off as sounding like Leonard Cohen after a nightlong alcoholic bender, and much of his vitality has been robbed: here, he doesn’t just sound like he’s 78; he sometimes sounds as though he’s virtually on his deathbed with a gravelly rasp and rattle that barely holds his compositions together. He even sings at one point here that “I am damaged cargo” without much irony. Listeners might be of two minds about this: on one hand, you can certainly appreciate and applaud Tyson’s decision to keep making music and singing songs as he’s always done, bum voice or no, and delight in the fact that the man is rising to the challenges that life has thrown his way recently with a certain kind of understated grace. However, on the other hand, you have to worry a bit about Tyson and whether or not his decision to keep singing, even on a new register, might damage himself even further, and the thought will probably cross your mind listening to Raven Singer, as it did mine, that Tyson would be better served moving into a new musical partnership with a vocalist who can handle the demands of performing, and let him just rest his vox a bit and focus more squarely on his guitar playing instead. Indeed, by the time you get to the album’s final track, the instrumental “The Yellow Dress”, you find yourself feeling glad that he’s chosen to give his voice a chance to recover....full text
AcousticmusicUnbelievably, Ian Tyson, is running up fast on 80 years of age, but he sure as hell doesn't look it in the liner shot for Raven Singer, nor is the guy exactly slowing down. In the last dozen years, he issued four CDs, a 2-DVD concert, an autobiography, collaborated on a book about he and Sylvia, and made an award winning music documentary for Canada's Bravo! TV channel…and all that, of course, doesn't even begin to cover the toughest job and his first love: training horses in the southern Albertan ranch country. The second toughest gig, long-time fans well know, was recovering from severe throat damage after trying to make up for a failing sound system in 2006 (while he was in his 70s!!!), the incident which occasioned that now familiar gravelly hoarse sprechestimme style, which audiences have taken to with ardor.
This CD, then, follows expectedly in the new groove but shows that Tyson is as much an elder statesman of folk music north of the Montana line as Bob Dylan is south of it. In his homeland, Ian's considered an unshakeable icon, and, as he's become accustomed to this new mode of expression, the stories in his songs have become more poignant, crossing the border between Dylan and Cohen. The abundant imagery is always of open skies and lands tread by working class men and women, people of the earth who get far more out of life than those locked away in gated communities and penthouse suites. That special grace, however, does not exempt them from travail, and Tyson's not shy about his admonitions to watch one's step, not fall afoul of the many heartbreaks lying in wait for the heedless.
Ian Tyson is, if anything, travelling ever further back in time, digging deep to locate the taproots. More than once, I was reminded of the soul of the famed Bristol Sessions with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the 1927 Tennessee recordings Johnny Cash named as "the most important event in the history of country music." There's that same salt of the earth quality in Raven, Tyson settling into an ambience too often lost as the modern strains of the new country mode compete with rock and roll. In a basic quartet ensemble, with four guests sitting in on various tracks, Sam Bush among 'em, he and the band manage to wring the most possible out of the form, avoiding excess and too-dialed-back a simplicity simultaneously, reflecting the point at which the still struggling genre was on a first name basis with folk music. Tyson may be going on his 80s, but he hasn't forgotten his 20s. Not at all....full text
AllmusicIn 2006, while performing at an outdoor country music festival, Ian Tyson damaged his vocal cords. A long bout with the flu followed and he lost much of his voice. He considered retiring, but singing is in his blood, so he learned how to sing with his new, limited range. Raven Singer is the second album he's made since using his new voice, and, at times, every one of his 78 years is evident in his range and delivery. But he still writes great songs and his backing trio, along with a few guests including superstar mandolin player Sam Bush, still lays down crackling country-folk tracks full of energy. "Charles Goodnight's Grave" is a tribute to the man who was probably the best-known cattle rancher in Texas and the inventor of the chuck wagon. It rides a loping beat and introduces Tyson's brittle, but still passionate, vocal style. On "Rio Colorado" Tyson rides a new horse trough a desolate landscape and contemplates mortality with his familiar understated poetry. Tyson's always had a way with love songs and a couple of tracks here rank up there with his best. The countrified, subtly sexy "Saddle Bronc Girl" tips its hat to a tough-as-nails woman with a will of her own. "Winterkill" uses images of frost and desolation to describe the end of a relationship, while the gently cynical "Under African Skies" explores the emotional pain of unrequited love that lingers long after the relationship is over. The album closes with "The Yellow Dress," a blue country waltz that lets the players show off their understated chops....full text
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