This is a release both commendable and highly recommended. The 2-CD set gathers material by Native American (most of them Canadian) songwriters and bands hardly known or remembered nowadays, certainly not by me, I hadn’t heard of a single artist on here before. It also was a conscious decision to focus on more little-known artists, so people like Buffy Sainte-Marie are missing.
The most widely known artist probably is Willie Dunn. He seems to have been something of a forerunner for many Native American artists and bands during that period. The background notes in the booklet for him introduces the reader to a highly prolific songwriter, filmmaker, coffee shop owner and painter. His amazing album opener I Pity The Country was chosen to accompany the video trailer for this release which you can see here. It’s a highly loveable Folk-Rock song with captivating, acute and poetic lyrics and a fabulous melody.
The above mentioned, accompanying excellent 120 page (yes, 120) booklet not only provides extensive background info on each of the 20+ Artists/bands featured, and also shows the original album artworks (incl. the record labels) as well as providing the lyrics to all songs. In case of non-English language songs the original lyrics and their English translations are also included. I for one enjoy browsing through the booklet almost as much as I do listening to both CD’s, the life stories being told of most artists are utterly fascinating.
I assume the fact that a lot of songs on here were recorded on a rather limited budget contributes to many of them being somewhat sparsely arranged and acoustic guitars abound, which is of course absolutely fine by me. The time span these songs were recorded in and the places the artists hail from, also contributes to a large amount of Folk-influences found throughout the 2-CD’s
The simplicity of many of the arrangements suits the nature of this compilation of songs from the far reaches of the Canadian wilderness and places such as The Northwest Territories (Willie Thrasher), Nunavut (Alexis Utatnaq) and Nunavik in Northen Quebec (Sukluk) very well. It’s also worth bearing in mind the function these songs primarily served. None of the artists on here came out of a hip student scene such as the ones found on cities such as New York City or Boston. A lot of the people in these bands went to boarding schools, oftentimes far away from home, which for many of them must have meant a troublesome and difficult experience. If they stayed in or returned to their own communities, they could often be found playing social gatherings – which, considering many of them were deep in the bush or close to the arctic circle, certainly is a far cry from some arty music club.
Said simplicity however isn’t evident all too often when it comes to most songs’ lyrics. Sure, there are fun and rather light-hearted songs on here too, such as Sugluk’s Fall Away and I Didn’t Know or Sikumiut’s Utirumavung and Sikumiut (the latter is especially catchy and cute). The afore mentioned I Pity The Country might be the most eloquently realised indictment of all that’s been wrong when it comes to relationships between Native Americans and non-natives. But a whole lot of other songs on here touch on similar themes which also penetrate deep into the music and mood of the songs. Alexis Utatnaq’s Maqaivvigivalauqtavut and Ernest Monias’ Tormented Soul are prime examples for this. Added are a host of excellent examples of the Native American way of storytelling and crafting dreamlike lyrics. The deep spiritual sensibilities palpable on all three songs by Willie Thrasher, Winds Of Change by Lloyd Cheechoo, Silver River by Shingoose (poetry by Duke Redbird), just to name a few, make for a haunting listening experience. The sound of Neil Young from that time period is also not far away on a number of tracks, such as Silver River and especially the brilliant Dreams Of Ways by Brian Davey.
Other highlights for me are Groupe Folklorique Montagnais’ (incl. Philippe McKenzie whose melancholic and mysterious Mistashipu, sung in his native Innu-aimun language opens CD2 in convincing style) song Tshekuan Mak Tshetutamak, which is an amazing blend of a Folky guitar strum-along and tribal drums. Both of John Angaiak’s songs on here Hey, Hey, Hey, Brother and I Rock You To The Rhythm Of The Ocean are pieces of pure introspective singer-songwriter magic with his melancholic voice making them crawl deep into your heart. Peter Frank’s Little Feather is another especially fine Folk-Country hybrid with a lulling, affecting tune. Excellent stuff.These songs are just some examples of tracks on here I find noteworthy, I could list a whole lot more.
As mentioned at the beginning, I can’t recommend Native North America Vol. 1 highly enough. With 34 tracks it’s cock-full of mostly excellent songs, both varied in style and unified by a strong sense of musical enthusiasm and connection to the land these artists stem from. This altogether makes for a captivating listening experience, conjuring up images (in my mind at least) of stark Northern American landscapes and the people who have been inhabiting them for a long time and the challenges they have been facing for the past 150+ years.