REVIEW: Jim Bryson: The North Side Benches
Jim Bryson: The North Side Benches [Orange, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? waiting for noise
Amidst a new wave of country-soaked singer-songwriters, Jim Bryson is the odd man out. While Ryan Adams, Luther Wright, Kathleen Edwards, Josh Rouse - as well as oldtimers like Jay Farrar, - are collecting allocades like an Ottawa windshield collects snowflakes, Bryson continues as he's always done: playing astonishing live shows, recording capable and comfortable LPs. The North Side Benches is not exactly a departure from The Occasionals, Bryson's first album, but whereas the latter seemed to revolve around its fiercer, rock'n'roll cuts, The North Side Benches seems more comfortable amid the midtempo fireside noise that characterize "Fleetwood" and "At Least for Now." While "Mean Streak" kicks out the jams in a melodic burst of post-breakup angst, the rest of the record is content to make its point with acoustic guitar, brushed drums, keys, and tasteful swoops of electric guitar.
As a singer, Bryson sounds humble and kindly, earnest as an old friend. His lyrics gleam with a hopeful sadness, a bruised resignation. "Bit by bit," he sings on "Somewhere Else," "I'm losing all this city's confidence." His songs are deliciously pop, with sing-along choruses and joyous "ba-da-da" and "la la la" interludes. Lead guitars streak in at all the right moments, burbles of lap steel and saw filling out the corners. Opener "Sleeping in Toronto" has all the trappings of a hit roots-rock single - it's jangling and fun, even in the face of its weary (ha!) subject-matter. Bryson warns that he "won't be home again / not for anyone." Later, Bryson sings a tumbling prayer for the consistency of home; when the track-title, "Elizabeth," dances off his tongue, a rich glow seems to rise about the song. It's something quietly, effortlessly beautiful, an intangible high that can't quite be regained over the next three minutes.
And here's the problem with The North Side Benches. It's a lovely little record - Bryson's songs are mature and handsomely performed, - but something prevents them from reaching the heights they have every right to. In a live setting, Jim Bryson and his band are a mighty thing: the committment of Bryson's performance, the heart he invests in each stroke of guitar, is intensely moving. His band-mates, meanwhile, show a similar investment. Lead guitarist Jack Bryce, in particular, looses brilliant flashes of noise, wounded electric storms. The effect is a shocking mixture of the quiet and the loud, a singer-songwriter's honesty juxtaposed with the fever swell of twangy rock'n'roll. It's a phenomenal, volatile concert: dazzling and hurt.
The North Side Benches, meanwhile, lacks the ambition. As on his debut, Bryson seems content to simply make competent recordings - he'd rather things be comfortably warm than risk anyone getting burnt. "Feel Much Better" is a crackling, celebratory chant, but instead of bursting fiery out of its skin - instead of exploding in a loud, searing guitar solo, in a turret of flame - it reins things in at medium-hot. This isn't simply a question of volume: on the gorgeous closer, "Broken Fingers," Bryson never quite lets the ache take over; he keeps his distance from its chilling heart. "Nobody talks, it seems / Everybody's watching TV. / Nobody knows / where all these days go. / You get up go to work and / Come home and fall asleep." This, over the melancholy tap of piano-keys, the muttering of a radio, the slow rise of drums and squeeze-box. The arrangement sounds inspired, but somehow it never makes its point; the song wraps-up without demanding the listener's attention, without expressing its full sorrow. The knife stays sheathed.
No matter how worthy Bryson's songs are, then - no matter how worthy Jim Bryson is as a performer and songwriter - The North Side Benches won't be what proves him to the world. But nor, on the other hand, will it be his apex. There is no sign here that Bryson's creative well is drying up, that his soul and his skill aren't more than enough to carry him higher yet. If the passion and fierceness of the musician's live shows were translated into his recordings, there would be no holding him back. And I, for one, can't wait.