The summer festival season is just around the corner, melting the ice off the winter months that tend to be a downtime in the live music scene. It also marks the end of the cold spell in the Mixtape publishing cycle. After releasing our annual ‘Best of’ guide, we tend to slow down. We have some exciting new plans in store for Mixtape, including a new format we’ll unveil in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we’ll get back into the swing of things by talking about stuff we like. All our writers do this whole music journalism thing because we love music, so it feels natural to write about the artists, songs and albums that catch our ear and won’t let go.
Yesterday, on Facebook, I declared the album Young Men by Jennah Barry is in my personal top ten of favourite albums of all time. Now, I don’t actually have a list of ten albums that I like better than any other album ever. It’s more of a concept, an album that stands out above the rest and enters an elite tier. Opinions on albums and music change over time. If I look back at our previous ‘Best of’ issues, there are albums I probably have only listened to once or twice after writing about them. At the time it made sense, but now in 2016 I’d second guess myself. If I dig back even further to my personal best-of lists I used to make during my undergrad, I can’t help wonder what I was thinking. Albums marinate in our minds differently. Some are loved, but quickly forgotten. Maybe we only liked the songs because they made sense in the context of our lives at the moment. Maybe the constant album cycle combined with the immediacy of streaming services allows us to discard a batch of songs and move on to the newest thing quicker. Or maybe the album as a format seems archaic, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Here’s why Young Men is one of my favourite albums:
I grew up on a steady diet of Atlantic Canadian music
Growing up, the music I was exposed to by my parents was CanCon heavy, specifically music from Atlantic Canada. As a kid, I thought Rawlins Cross was the coolest thing because they played the bagpipes while rocking out. Their album Reel ’N’ Roll resulted in me asking my parents if I could learn the bagpipes instead of continuing to learn the piano (mom and dad, sorry I didn’t practice enough. Neighbours, you’re welcome). And then there was the Rankin Family. They were my favourite. Every road trip to visit grandparents in Cape Breton meant at least one listen to North Country on cassette, especially while on the causeway between mainland Nova Scotia and the island.
Unfortunately for some artists, being from Atlantic Canada can lead to stereotypes or pre-conceived notions of what music from the region will sound like. I’m not trying to say Jennah Barry sounds like the Rankin Family or bands of that folk ilk. What connects her with those artists, however, is an influence from the ocean and a Nova Scotian way of life (and I’m not talking about the anchor on t-shirts from that company you either love or hate). I’ve grown up my whole life close to the ocean. When I lived in Ontario for a summer, I longed to see the scary, yet beautiful, endless succession of waves.
Barry is from the South Shore, where she lives now. The album was recorded at the Old Confidence Lodge in Riverport, N.S. Naturally, Young Men is constantly splashed with images of rural Nova Scotia. Opening track “The Coast” includes the following lyrics:
“You bellow from the distance, rollin us to sleep
Then charge out like an army, callous from the deep
Little too honest, runnin with the whales
The scariest part is, ya hardly know we’re there”
Throughout the track, and really, the whole album, Barry takes images of her natural surroundings and weaves them into the narrative of her stories. Similar images come through once again on “4X4”, with mentions of river waters, trucks running side by side with the tensions of a relationship.
It’d be foolish to label Barry as just another Atlantic Canadian writing sea shanty’s and carrying on the folk tradition of the area. She uses some of the same tools, including imagery of the same waves that have crashed onto the shores of the region forever, but it sounds fresh and original. It’s the Jennah Barry story, not the story of those from before. She’s a breath of fresh, salty air.
There are no singles — all the songs are good
I often lose patience with an album because there’s a wide range of quality from song to song. I’m drawn to the “quote, unquote singles” and other standout tracks, but find myself skipping through the filler. (That may seem like a harsh term, but so many albums have forgettable songs). If you were to ask me to put a track from Young Men on a playlist, I’d struggle narrowing it down to one or two songs. Or three or four. Every song on Young Men stands out on its own, but thrives in the company of the surrounding tracks.
It’s a deep pallet of emotions — longing for company on “Slow Dance”, wrestling with the flaws of one’s character on “Honey”, loneliness on “Sweatheart”, the struggle of something coming to an end on “To Be Patient” — the list goes on and on.
The songs don’t fall strictly into the folk category. Yes, there’s a clear focus on the vocals. There’s acoustic guitar. There’s piano. But there are moments with more of an indie rock feel. Electric guitar lives next to pedal steal and strings. Young Men falls somewhere in the folk-country-indie-rock genre, with each genre having a moment.
Each song taps into a different vein, carries a different feeling and has just a little something different in each song that makes Young Men solid from start to finish. This is no small feat for a singer songwriter. It’s why Jennah Barry stands out. She rises to the top of a genre that can feel boring and homogenous. Finally, I can’t believe this is her debut album. It oozes wisdom and maturity, like somebody who has been an established singer-songwriter for decades.
The title track is simply incredible
I know I just talked talked about this album not really having a single, but the closing track really is a standout. Also the title track, “Young Men” would never make sense as a single, but in the context of the album it’s incredible.
In just under three minutes, the instrumentation covers a lot of ground. Until writing this article, I never realized how short the song actually is, it feels like a five minute ballad. It begins with subtle layers of Barry’s vocals harmonizing together while a guitar picks away in the background. Then a distant haunting howl comes through, like a siren, before fading away and welcoming a few bars of banjo picking from Old Man Leudecke. Then the vocals return, the howl comes back in and fades away. And then there’s a Glockenspiel solo that creates a beautiful chiming sound that eventually teams up with that howl that keeps appearing throughout the song. It seems like every twenty seconds, something unpredictable and exciting happens as the album fades away and comes to a close. The end of Young Men doesn’t quite feel like the end. It feels like the story isn’t over, we’ll just have to wait a while to see what happens next.
That’s just the instrumentation, now on to the lyrics.
“I owned up to my boyfriend,
Things have gotten over thought
Snow came down like a curtain
Broke my arms underneath it all”
By this point I’m cheering for Barry, she’s won me over. She exposes the tensions in relationships, expressing her point of view but also candidly displaying her own flaws. On the track “Young Men”, she takes a pot shot at young men in a wink and nudge type of way. No matter what’s happened in the past, Barry gets the last laugh. She’s the one who gets to sit back and have a drink while young men struggle, fight and fade away.
“Raise a glass for all young men
They fight till they fall apart
Turn around and they’re gone again
For the love of another one”
The album elicits a strong emotional response
Music is a funny thing. It plays an important role in many of our lives and often for emotional reasons. Listen to something you were obsessed with in Grade 9 and you’ll get this weird feeling in your stomach as you’re transported through nostalgia to another time when you were completely different.
But you can’t force yourself to like something. You can convince yourself you like something, but if you don’t like the music, it’s not going to stick. On the flip side, sometimes you don’t expect music to grab your attention, but it does.
The album came out at the end of May in 2012. I received a media copy Young Men sometime over the summer of 2012 but didn’t touch it for a while. It takes a lot for me to even consider listening to a singer songwriter these days. Why should I think this new artist is any different from the rest?
But Young Men has clawed into my subconscious. It’s an album that makes me feel something. It makes me miss my friends. It makes me think of mistakes I’ve made in the past. I have fond memories of listening to the album while driving to Old Confidence Lodge for a show a couple years ago, looking at some of the scenery that’s mentioned in the album. It reminds me of balling my eyes out while going through a hard time and listening to this album. The songs are comforting and thought provoking all at once. I’ve been listening to Young Men on repeat for nearly four years and it never gets old.
Photo: Evelyn Hornbeck/Mixtape