It’s interesting how lockdown seems to be sorting the wheat from the proverbial chaff when it comes to music making Regardless of genre, those who feel the need, or even necessity, to express themselves through song, are finding a way and indeed thriving on the time for reflection and creativity the new normal has provided.
This lockdown-generated affair from Canadian singer-songwriter Billy Raffoul is a prime example. It’s no frills, sure, stripped down to just guitar and vocals, but his talent only seems amplified by having such a stark, unforgiving light shone on it.
The single that preceded the album, ‘What Makes A Man’ , sets out the album’s stall perfectly. A protest song about police brutality and systematic racism inspired by the realisation that he’d been driving around for three months with expired licence plates without being stopped, and how different it is for others in North America, it’s stirring and moving, the brutality of its subject matter matched by the brutal, intimate production.
With gushing harmonica all over its bold intro, there’s a clear comparison to be drawn with Bob Dylan. But while the bard of Greenwich Village has an evident and sizeable influence – which singer songwriter armed with an acoustic guitar isn’t affected by him? – it’s only part of the puzzle. ‘Philadelphia’ nods to classic Bruce Springsteen, the way intimate personal revelations are effortlessly transposed into an impassioned, state of the nation anthem. It’s a powerful recipe, repeated latest in ‘Big City’, about the loneliness and alienation of living life in the modern metropolis, while ‘Everything Marie’, which follows it, has a touch of the other side of the Boss, all soul-drenched vulnerability and melancholy, its vocal lines almost whispered.
‘Sundown On County Line’, on the other hand, is one of the simplest arrangements here but spine tinglingly effective, a simple echo lending tons of atmosphere in this austere sonic spectrum.
Among the other highlights, the simple romanticism of ‘You & I’, ghostly backing vocals sliding around in the ether above. ‘Right Behind You’, more strident and strong in vibe, brings his fellow countryman Neil Young’s work to mind, a real lighter-in-the-air moment that will surely be a delight to play live when the time comes.
‘Massey Hall’ rounds the album off in style, another intimate anthem if such a thing can exist. Its falsetto chorus will take you by surprise, given that Raffoul’s normal vocal modus operandi is deep and sonorous, but it’s arguably a case of saving the best ‘til last, especially when even the minimal backing dies away and leaves the voice completely – and wonderfully – exposed.
It’s a fitting end to an album that breathes new life into the simplest of set ups. Lyrically rich and thought provoking, this is an intimate and enriching session that’s as big on soulfulness as it is scant on studio trickery. No frills, all thrills, you might even say.
‘International Hotel’ is out now via Interscope Records