Andrew’s CD starts strong

Jeff Andrew, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke
Produced by Jeff Andrew, Tyrone Shoe and Corwin Fox ($7 Digital)

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak 

Jeff Andrew’s sandpaper drawl is the first thing that draws the ear on his newest release, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke. He really doesn’t sound like many other singers, but he isn’t really singing as much as spouting stories picked up from his myriad travels across the nation.

Many of his songs, such as “Reasonable Doubt,” are testimonies to Canada’s shadier tales of injustice — this one in particular about the debated conviction of Nicole Kish, a woman who allegedly murdered a panhandler in Toronto in 2007. Although Andrew makes it interesting, his delivery is a bit graceless. Compared to a song about a similar situation, such as Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song,” it’s clear there’s probably a more refined way to act as champion for the wrongly convicted.

The next song, “Professional Asshole” takes an even stronger punk-rock-pass at police forces in general, but loses credibility on account of its crudeness. The ethics of authorities has indeed become a more prominent issue in Canadian society recently, but Andrew’s delivery weakens the case he’s trying to promote. It’s nice to hear someone thinking rationally, but there are far more eloquent ways of raising a point.

These quibbles notwithstanding, the first seven songs feature excellent acoustics and atmosphere, given by sessions done in a giant tunnel underneath East Hastings street in Vancouver. The ubiquitous producer-engineer Corwin Fox lends his signature sound as well, resulting in a clean, pleasant listen — good for whether you’re tidying up the house on a Sunday, or a few hours into your spring road trip.

Strange instrumentation lights up the mostly traditional arrangements on TT&T – Andrew, a former University of Victoria student, notably plays both the five-stringed fiddle and the antiquated Stroh violin, which boasts a resonator and a phonograph horn. These fit very well in the reverb-drenched tunnel tracks, especially “The Graveyard Downtown.” Perhaps Andrew was inspired by fellow violinist, the late Oliver Schroer, who famously played in the grand churches of northern Spain on his album Camino. Either way, the choice of recording space is effective.

The back half of the record, which liner notes identify as a set songs previously recorded in 2010 as The Treehouses & Trainsmoke EP, is unfortunately less polished than the first half (named as simply Tunnels, from 2013). I heard some weird vocal fluffs and flats, and basic rhythmic discrepancies between drum and guitar tracks. Having two  different producing engineers involved, over two sessions three years apart,  creates incoherence.  Perhaps Andrew simply should have separately released the best four cuts from each session. Nova Scotia balladeer Joel Plaskett, who himself is not particularly known for being concise (see his triple album, Three), once said “Putting out a 3 or 4 song EP is as good, if not better, than a full length.”

Jeff Andrew presents us with some interesting stories, some rambling arrangements, one or two truly sublime bright spots (mostly punctuated by his violin and fiddle playing) and lots of political, road-weary angst. That’s cool, for a little while. We all need a reality check. But what we really need is a concise, clear statement; for that, Andrew needs to head back to his drawing board.

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights.