Atlantic Canada, in particular Nova Scotia, has quite the knack for mixing disparate, mundane elements and turning them over into something special. Like a delicious donair after a late night drinking out on the corner of Blowers and Grafton Streets, one can easily encounter in Halifax the pleasure of finding the familiar couched within the unique. Or is it the unique within the familiar? Either way, this is a method that naturally carries over to the East Coast music scene. Lo-fi, but warmly produced. Folksy, but appreciative of a good crunch of distortion. More so here than anywhere, ‘indie’ is better used as a marketing term than an accurate descriptor of the genres Atlantic rock acts carry forth.
The problem of familiarity: with such bands willing to blur the lines numbering a dime a dozen, it is tempting to simply summarize the archetype of the Nova Scotian singer-songwriter with a picture of Matt Mays and be done with it. The problem of uniqueness: it becames harder and harder for one to be so. Fortunately, Haligonian Jon McKiel has an answer to these problems, and it comes in the form of his new eponymous EP, Jon McKiel.Released on June 3rd through Headless Owl Records, Jon McKiel marks three years since the last release, 2011’s Tonka War Cloud. With cited influences being ‘Halifax’, ‘Books’, and ‘Friends’, one can expect certain lyrical markers to be set. Opener “New Tracy (I Will Learn To See)” gets the record started rather optimistically, as McKiel’s vocals surf over a burst of bright guitar: “All the waves are gold / Past through another dimension / Out past the dust and all that / Count on your hands to make this right“. Before you know it, the halfway mark hits and the bridge brings in a harp-like melody, recalling the opening of The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. It may be one of the happiest songs ever about the subject of regret; it certainly sounds like the song came to McKiel while running a Nova Scotian beach on a bright, sunny morning.
Follow-up “I Know, I Know” slows the pace somewhat, yet still displays a steady chop of acoustic guitar over a snare that has no hurry to reach the end of the song. McKiel’s vocals echo throughout, and the result is a song where no element overtakes the other. Coupled with the blustery “Twin Speaks” and its shredder climax, it becomes clear that McKiel’s ability to weave folk elements into rock (and vice versa) is something of a second nature.
The six-track Jon McKiel runs a brisk 17 minutes, and the average song here doesn’t even break three. Even the longest track here, the bluesy “Dying All The Time (Tropical Depression)”, doesn’t make it to four minutes, as the song exits on a softly repeating fadeout. Unlike the plagues of experimentation that befall many singer-songwriters on their quest to differentiate their music, McKiel’s songs simply arrive, make their point, and then make way for the next one. Sometimes, all you need to do to stand out is to keep things on the regular.
The high point of the EP, though, is the surprising “Accolades”. Starting on a falsetto three-four, McKiel launches into a straightforward guitar stroke that you’re pretty sure has been done a thousand times before, yet here it sounds as fresh as the first time you switched on the radio. Subtly, the track shows hints of disintegration–the bass meanders around, a hum of feedback arises, and suddenly the track cuts. Cue drum break, and what may be the loveliest guitar riff of 2014, chiming its way through as the familiar song patterns are brought back. “We’re so out of tune, and we like it” cries McKiel, which isn’t arguable when the results are this satisfying.
While it is safe to say that McKiel is one of the most talented acts to come out of Halifax lately, his music is in that weird danger-zone of being overlooked today and then be “discovered” years later (which isn’t new to Maritime acts–say hello, Plumtree). It is common for many critics to cite earlier artists as being “criminally underappreciated in their time”, but then turn around and ignore many of the excellent bands and singers around today. Make sure this doesn’t happen to Jon McKiel. Give him his deserved time in the spotlight, and check his music out right now.
Check out Jon McKiel!
Author: Nathan Christie