Jon Brooks : The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside

Jon Brooks The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside Cover Jpeg(2014 Borealis Records)

Easy listening this is not. There’s meat on the bones on this record. Jon Brooks hails from Ontario, Canada and The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside is his 5th album to date. It is the first record of his I have heard, so I can’t really compare it with his previous output. He’s playing all of the few instruments heard on the album, actually it’s pretty much only guitars, a banjitar, plus some rudimentary percussion, which apparently is mainly his feet tapping and banging on his guitar. As you would expect, this makes for a rather sparsely instrumented and spartan album. The sound is dry, but quite substantial and good, with his gruff voice sounding like a little less moody Tom Waits (or Mr. Waits on one of his more friendly albums).

The songs range from the short, barely over one and a half minutes long These Are Not Economic Hard Times to the over 11 minutes long The Only Good Things Is An Old Dog. The latter of which expertly weaves together the story of a workplace mass killing with quotes from Shakespeare’s King Lear and Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil. A whole lot of songs on here are about murders and death. The Twa Sisters (also recorded in the recent past by Tom Waits on his triple-album Orphans) is based on a Francis James Child ballad and dates back to the 19th Century. It’s a long, splendid and hypnotic song with a lovely tune standing in stark contrast to the gruesome lyrics about betrayal, killing and mutilation.

My favorite song on here, Queensville is similar in that regard. Whereas The Twa Sisters is a pretty ballad, Queensville in contrast is a somewhat uptempo Hillbilly-Folk song with a catchy and upbeat feel to it. Equally uncomfortable lyrics however, about the unsolved murder of a young girl make for a captivating listening experience.

Album opener Gun Dealer is percussion-heavy and energetic and with its long list of available gun-models an excellent statement about gun-crazy cultures. People Don’t Think Of Others is yet another song I love dearly on here, the maudlin lyrics about a double suicide pact perfectly augmented by a melancholic tune and a gorgeous Folk arrangement. It’s also a fine pointer of where Jon Brooks is from with the opening lines of ‘He came from Elfros, Saskatchewan a flat town from which thwarted dreams are born, you could watch your dog run until lunchtime, or the indifferent trains ‘til morn’. Music from the Canadian Prairies breathing the wide open spaces and the secrets contained in them – in the case of The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside, the dark ones, where the ugly side of human nature rears its head all too often.

Highway 16 is again concerned with the human abyss, this one is a bout a truck driving serial killer, and on here the subdued mood of the song fits the unpleasant lyrics very well indeed. Felix Culpa is the darkest-sounding song on the album, the haunting sound of the banjitar and percussion accompaniment giving it a perfect Southern Gothic feel, reminiscent of a stripped down 16 Horsepower in their prime.

Album closer Worse Than Indians is inspired by a book about the relocation of a Dene tribe and a plea for forgiveness in the face of injustice and the wrong that has been done.

The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside is a convincing album by a songwriter with stories to tell, not always ones you necessary want to hear, but stories that will linger in your head for a long time after your heard them. His expressive voice and energetic musical accompaniment making the songs on the album all the more unforgettable.

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St. Albert Grain Elevator Park

St. Albert Grain Elevator Park, St. Albert, Alberta

Grain Elevator, St. Albert, Alberta

Grain Elevator, St. Albert, Alberta

The two grain elevators were built in 1906 and 1929 respectively (I’m assuming the green one is the one built in 1929). As I went there in March the park wasn’t open so I had to make do with having a look and photographing them from outside of the park and including the ugly fence in the first photo.

St. Albert, Alberta, Canada

My first encounter with the American Bison/Buffalo

This post isn’t meant to be an academic study of the American Bison or anything in that area, I am posting this purely because seeing them has been such an impressive experience for me. Having read about them and the sad story of their near-demise in the 19th Century quite a bit recently I have become increasingly fascinated by them and when the time came to plan my recent holiday in the Canadian province of Alberta I was more than delighted to learn that they can be found in a couple of places throughout the province. First and one of the best addresses (as far as I am aware) being Elk Island National Park, located less than an hour east of the provincial capital of Edmonton (which was my first stop). So I didn’t hesitate (I even joked with my friends that I wouldn’t return from my trip before I managed to have seen at least one), to drive over to this delightful, 184 km² big National Park with its captivating mix of aspen parkland and boreal forests after my arrival. Fortunately I didn’t have to search too long to spot some, although I didn’t encounter large herds of them (apparently there are over 300 living in Elk Island National Park) so here are some photos I took, being thoroughly impressed, as well as a bit intimidated by their size and statue, although they apparently are rather peaceful fellows from all I heard. Wandering around one of the park’s biggest lakes, Astotin Lake, I felt a bit uncomfortable to be honest, as there was faeces lying around in a number of places, which given its size could only have come from them and I didn’t exactly know what other types of wildlife are living in the park (I am a bit of a coward) It being March, I had the park pretty much to myself and it was snow-covered and the lake iced-over – which apart from me being a bit worried, was a wonderful experience and probably my closest encounter was wilderness so far (and I love snow).

So here are a few photos from the bison I saw at Elk Island National Park

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American Bison at Elk Island National Park

American Bison at Elk Island National Park
Another encounter with them took place at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site where they were fenced in somewhat but that site otherwise being equally fascinating and rather eerily quiet and forlorn at this time of year. I imagine there are a lot more people there in summer, but there were none apart from myself on my visit.

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Canada, here I come

To celebrate my first ever trip to Canada starting tomorrow here’s one of my all-time favorite tracks, taken from Blue Rodeo’s 1991 album Casino. It still sounds perfect to me, one of the best songs ever when it comes to 1980’s/early ’90’s Power/Guitar-Pop in my opinion. I really should do a mix with my favorite tracks from that period and style, come to think of it (remember REM being great?).

Ever since I first got that album over 20 years ago, I decided to go to Canada one day. It took me all that time to make it happen, but now the time has finally come and I’m feeling very excited.