BY FRED MILLS
While it’s not necessarily prudent to apply the “something in the water” argument to an album, it’s still tempting to ascribe at least part of North Americana’s sterling quality to its recording context—in this instance, Montreal’s storied Hotel2Tango studios, with the estimable Mr. Howard Bilarman behind the boards. The fact that Leif Vollebekk is himself from Montreal may or may not be relevant to this notion, but suffice to say his laid-back-yet-edgy brand of jazz-tinged folk is destined to find a wide and deep audience. He won’t be limited to the “northern” territory of the Americana scene for long.
North Americana, the followup to 2010’s Inland, even opens with a wish list for Vollebekk: “Southern United States” details a dream the songwriter had about “standing beneath the Memphis moon/ With William Blake painting and Crosby crooning,” subsequently meditating upon Lou Reed’s iconic album Berlin and a “low Texas drawl” coming through the static of a border radio broadcast. From there, it’s a traipse through his fevered imagination, heading “Off the Main Drag” into some “Cairo Blues,” visiting a “Photographer Friend” then witnessing how “A Wildfire Took Down Rosenberg,” subsequently experiencing the “Pallbearer Blues” and meditating upon how “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground.” He structures much of his material along acoustic guitar & upright bass lines, or piano/bass, not unlike the late, great Tim Buckley’s midperiod explorations (the aforementioned “Cairo Blues” is the clearest tip-off)—and, it should be made clear, and despite what a number of writers have surmised, his stylistic lineage is quite definitely, defiantly the avant/folk elder Buckley and not son Jeff, whose musical DNA traveled to an intersection of indie rock and worldbeat.
That Vollebekk has also been frequently compared to Dylan simply confirms his ‘60s, rather than ‘90s, roots.
As the album unfolds, Vollebekk unleashes his inner gypsy, engaging in soaring, sweeping vocal flights—notably, the breathtaking “Takk Somuleiois,” which does in fact (just to be fair to my fellow critics) find the singer hitting some impressive Jeff Buckley-esque falsettos, as well as the lengthy and elegiac “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground,” featuring Arcade Fire violin virtuoso Sarah Neufield. At those times, one begins to sense the potential this young artist holds forth. Bold and breezy, at once fun and feisty, and even occasionally carnal and canny, Leif Vollebekk is as much of a traditionalist as he is an upstart. And he’s only barely begun. Let’s hope he keeps drinking from that Montreal well…
DOWNLOAD: “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground,” “Cairo Blues”
Leif Vollebekk is currently on tour in the States through the middle of June. Tour dates can be found at his website.