I've been meaning to review Northern Gospel for over nine months now, but just never got around to it for various reasons. Seeing as Emm Gryner is one of my favourite music artists, I didn't want to let it fall completely through the cracks without writing some words about the album. I had originally incorporated much of the background information from Tuesday's "Get to know Emm Gryner..." post in with this review and decided to split them up, just so the word count wouldn't be too much of a deterrent for prospective readers.
Northern Gospel marks full-length album number 13 for the talented Gryner and finds the Canadian musician delivering 10 tracks of filler-free material that clocks in at a compact 34 minutes. Gryner reteams with producer Stuart Brawley, who helmed her second album in 1997, The Original Leap Year. Northern Gospel's title, as Gryner explained in a post on her blog, has less to do with anything associated with organized religion and "...more to do with what I've learned from where I am, geographically, emotionally, etc." Speaking of "geographically", I love that Gryner throws the occasional Canadiana reference into her lyrics. Northern Gospel offers three such nods, with references to "Victoria rain" (from "Survive"), Gryner's "Stonetown friends" (from "Last Day On Earth", a reference to the nickname of St. Mary's, Ontario, where she lives), and name-checking the country itself in "North". Gryner might not quite surpass The Tragically Hip when it comes to the frequency of paying lyrical homage to their homeland, but it's a small detail that resonates with this Canuck.
"Ciao Monday", Gryner's take on the "Mondays suck" song theme, kicks off the album on an upbeat note. A fairly spare arrangement anchored by the musician's ever-present piano builds over its succinct 2:43 running time, highlighted by some beautiful self-harmonizing background vocals (and I believe I detected a sly reference to her former boss, David Bowie, with the "actors coming into work all cracked" line). Second track "Last Day On Earth" rides an infectious electric keyboard riff over lyrics gleefully kissing off an ex, again packing it all into a less-than three minute package. Interestingly, Northern Gospel's shortest tracks are its five peppiest numbers - of that group, only "Heartsleeves" (which features one of the album's best choruses) clocks in at over three minutes. "Ageless" and the bouncy "Fast Exit" (aptly titled at just 2:31) round out the album's half portion of upbeat material.
As exceptional as the livelier songs are, Gryner excels even further with her slower, more emotive material. There's no better example of that than the beautiful "North", which almost immediately shot to the top of my abstract list of favourite Gryner songs. I'll even go as far to say I'd now have to consider it one of my favourite songs ever - it's that amazing. Every aspect of the song works flawlessly, from Gryner's standout vocals, to the production touches that inform the track's background vocals, to the meaningful lyrics, to the song's haunting yet optimistic air, to the performances from the rest of Northern Gospel's musicians (playing on the album are Matt Mayhall and Lyle Molzan on drums, Joe Corcoran on bass, guitars, percussion, and horns, plus Brawley on various keyboards). The melancholy "Home" tastefully adds some understated horns to Gryner's sound palette, while the mid-tempo "Survive" provides a nice contrast to the preceding "Fast Exit" and the following "Transatlantic", the album closer that shifts back and forth between a sparse musical arrangement and portions where more of those lush, multi-layered background vocals lift the track skywards. Finally, "A Little War", the album's second strongest track, sees Gryner continuing an occasional habit of revisiting some of her past material, as she also did with "Fast Exit" (it appeared on Gryner's obscure The Great Lakes album from 2005). "A Little War" first appeared on 2000's Dead Relatives album in rough 4-track form and benefits immensely from the full band treatment, transforming it from an originally decent tune limited by its lack of polish, to a fully-realized masterpiece (yes, I'll use that strong a word) with epic overtones and dimension.
Northern Gospel doesn't mark a radical departure from Gryner's identifiable melodic pop sound, but it does find the underappreciated songstress delivering her strongest album yet with a memorable collection of concise and skillfully crafted, well-performed songs.
Watch Gryner's solo performance of "North" from the CBC studios: