CD review: KARAOKE COWBOY
By Dan Brisebois
Trevor Mills is a folk singer and is proud of it. On "Karaoke Cowboy", his second INDEPENDENT release, he presents twelve original compositions that showcase both the breadth and depth of his talent. The record was co-produced by Mills and his father, veteran producer Paul Mills (Stan Rogers, Ron Hynes, Sharon Lois & Bram, Tanglefoot), and recorded at The Millstream Studios in Toronto.
Mills has been a part of the Toronto folk scene, even if only in observation, since he was a kid (most recently playing bass with Evalyn Parry and Aengus Finnan and hosting New Folk Night at Toronto's Hugh's Room); and I can't help but see "Karaoke Cowboy" as the result of all those years of musical influence and inspiration. Mills plays guitar and bass on the record, and is joined, among others, by Joe Phillips (bass), Joey Wright (mandolin), Chris Whiteley (pedal steel and trumpet), Al Cross (drums and suitcase percussion), Chris Quinn (banjo), Darren Schott (fiddle), Jason LaPrade (dobro), and Treasa Levasseur (harmony vocals), as well as his dad's alter ego Curly Boy Stubbs (guitar and clarinet).
The record opens with "Below a Marble Stone", a sad but somehow comforting love song with a beautiful bass accompaniment from Phillips and Paul Odegaard's banjo blending with Mills' guitar through the verses. There is a deep melancholy in it that is so appealing. Mills' quirky sense of humour comes through on the nonsensical "Nothin'," his rambling ditty about, well, nothing. "Little Star" is a tender love song, in which he sings of the innocence of new love. The music is a variation on Mozart's and the words on Jane Taylor's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." There is a shy, sweet smile running through it: "Won't you open up your heart to me/It would let me in if you'd let it be/I could touch your lips with the finest wine/While your hands play tender songs in mine."
There are two instrumental compositions on the record, "Rosalind's Music Box Dream," featuring Mills on nylon string guitar and Rick Hyslop on violin, and "Variations on You," composed by Mills on his electric bass, which also features Curly Boy Stubbs on nylon string guitar and Whiteley and Kajica Djuric on trumpet.
The title track, a delightful country ode to the art of karaoke, features a folk gospel choir of Finnan, Dave Rogers, Candace Shaw, Parry, and Claire Jenkins for the final choruses. It has an impromptu, relaxed feel to it - it's obvious that they were having fun that day in the studio. This folk chorus, minus Rogers and plus Bev Mills, appears again on "Little Waltzing Country Song," a country waltz written, during a trip to Newfoundland, with the delightfully odd cadence that seems to float in the air in St. John's.
The standout track on "Karaoke Cowboy" is "Brave," a tribute to fearlessness and freedom of spirit that features the Mills family, including sister Sarah on harmony vocals. It follows the rhythm of Larry Nusbaum's djembe and the ache of Peter Boyd's slide guitar. Mills' voice is deep and rich, both weary and hopeful. His youthful executioner takes that same voice in the beautiful "Phantom Bugles." There is both sadness and resignation in his words, and fear that accompanies a realization that his life will be forever changed: "How can they know for certain that they have the guilty man/And if they are so sure then put this rifle in their hands/Why give this gun to me, this man is not my enemy/I pray they give the order to stand down/My youth is lost when that man hits the ground." Each time I hear this song, I find myself knocked over with despair, always hoping, as though watching a movie with an unhappy ending, that it will end differently this time.
The variety of songs on this record embodies what I love about folk music - there is so much room for interpretation and experimentation, both in lyrics and instrumentation. Mills presents us with so much variety - from gospel singalongs and intricate instrumentals to political protests and waltzes. There is such a depth to his songwriting, and the promise of so much more to come, so many more words and musical phrases yet to be uttered. And through it all is the feeling that he loves what he's doing, which is arguably as important to the quality of the finished product as are the lyrics and music.
Come and help celebrate the launch of "Karaoke Cowboy" on Friday, January 31st at Hugh's Room in Toronto (www.hughsroom.com). Some very special guests will join Trevor on stage and his witty banter will no doubt keep you smiling all night!