Released in May
Not unlike Emm Gryner, whose praises I've sung on this blog more than once in the past several months, Holly McNarland is another frustratingly underrated Canadian artist (in fact, I discovered Gryner opening at one of McNarland's shows in 2003). Following the independently released EP Sour Pie in 1995, McNarland enjoyed some breakout success with the tracks "Numb" and "Elmo" off her first full-length album, 1997's alt rock-leaning Stuff, eventually going on to win the 1998 Juno Award for Best New Solo Artist (the Juno is like the Canadian Grammy). Further success came in 2002 with "Beautiful Blue", the lead single from her album Home Is Where My Feet Are, which is one of my favourite songs and music videos of the past decade. Since then, McNarland has made her family her first priority and left the major label system to return to her roots as an indie artist, releasing the overlooked Chin Up Buttercup in 2007 and now Run Body Run, which was an iTunes Store-only release back in May that eventually had CDs pressed for retail distribution. If you're paying attention, you'll notice that's only been one LP every five years (with a couple of EPs mixed in along the way), contributing to McNarland's relative lack of profile these days. And that's a shame, because not enough people will likely get to hear Run Body Run, arguably her best album yet.
The Manitoba-born, Toronto-based McNarland has mellowed somewhat since her edgier, more angst-filled earlier days, although Run Body Run still packs an ornery punch in quite a number of places. "Fish" conveys the dark, brooding vibe that McNarland can be so adept at conjuring up and it's also evident on the back half of the slow-building title track, where the singer really lets loose with her exceptional voice. "Run Body Run" is a tad on the repetitive side, essentially only consisting of three different chords, but the instrumental layers and emotion that emerge as the song unfolds are mighty powerful and make it a fitting album closer (check out her impressive solo acoustic performance of it here). Slow, melancholy songs are another specialty of the musician and there's four strong ones here, all demonstrating a distinct country influence: "Widow's Pane" (featuring some lovely twangy guitars), "After I'm Gone", "Darlin'", and "You'll Forget About Me". That last song is one of my favourite tracks on the album, but every time I listen to it I'm thrown off by the brief sound of some off-putting feedback right when the solo section begins at 2:47. It weirdly sounds exactly like the pitch of my microwave oven timer and the first time I listened to the track, I literally got up from my chair and went to check the appliance. Somewhere in the middle ground between McNarland's heartaching ballads and her more aggressive material lie songs like album opener "Alone's Just Fine" (a perfect example of less-is-more guitar craftsmanship with its bright and open ringing chords), the energetic "Only Money", "Dig A Little", and "Whisper".
McNarland has always been adept at mixing a number of musical styles and there's no better example of that than Run Body Run, as pop, country, folk, and rock rub shoulders within the musician's highly melodic songs that favour the usage of quiet-loud dynamics. There's virtually no letdown throughout the album's 41 minute/10 track span, making Run Body Run one of the finest albums I've heard this year and an under the radar release you'd be well advised to seek out.