Review Summary: A good, if slightly flawed folk album from an underheard Canadian artist.
What the River Gave the Boat is Mark Berube’s sophomore effort and the first in a planned duo of albums. Hailing from Vancouver, Berube teams with various session musicians to create a nice little indie-folk-pop album. If you are conjuring thoughts of a Bon Iver, or Nick Drake-esque sound, think again. More akin to the latest Iron and Wine, the compositions of Berube are generally augmented with shifted piano melodies and lush backing instrumentation. The first time I came across Berube was when he played a show at my university. It was a Thursday night, perfect time to catch an indie show, seeing as Thursday is by far the most indie day of the week (it’s not quite the weekend, but the drinks are cheap), so I went with a buddy of mine, not expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised and picked up this album along with its companion album What the Boat Gave the River.
For such an unknown artist, the musicianship on the album is superb. Berube at the piano possesses a good handle of keys, dropping in a few technical flourishes here and there to augment the central melody. Pretty Little Bird is a prime example of the piano capabilities of Berube. The session musicians also add good performances. The string section play well in adding the necessary textural arrangements to the songs. There is a neat muted trumpet solo half way through Cloudy Day, a bouncing, joyful opening number, which is rather contrary to the general sadness of the rest of the music. The drumming is simple, merely keeping time, though one can’t expect too much from a folk album. One constant throughout the album is quality of the musicianship. Unfortunately there are a few drawbacks to the album.
Lyrically, Berube likes to dabble in social issues. Though this is not a bad thing, social concerns are excellent sources for lyrics, the problem lies with what Berube actually writes about these issues. The album is hit or miss with respect to the lyrics. “A country with it’s head chopped off, and blood soaks the land,” muses Berube on the lovely and sparsely arranged Yebo Mama. This is one of the better examples of the lyricism of Berube, as he sings about the injustices done by the imperialist settlers in Africa. Alternately, Berube sings, “I’ve seen your face on the cover, you are wanted by the police,” on Alarms. The line is not particularly bad, it just seems so flat and trite compared to other examples of much better lyricism found on the album. The lyrics are generally all over the map of quality, but luckily the music makes up for this, most of the time.
The album starts to become slightly tedious towards the back end of the song collection. War Without an End and Running Away lack any sort of staying power and seem to simply float by. Fortunately for the audience, the last track brings the album back to life. Barbershop is an unexpected turn, and a pleasant inclusion that adds another dimension to the album. A soft, repetitive piano melody is the base in which Berube, in spoken word fashion, tells the story of a girl named Sara who he sees hitchhiking and picks her up. I pretty violin section acts as a bridge between two “verses”. The ending of the song is a long, beautiful crescendo, reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You Black Emperor! if either were folk bands. Yebo Mama and Cowboys are also note worthy entries into the disc. These three tracks are possibly the best on the album and make up for the lesser songs.
Overall this is a solid folk album. Nothing overly spectacular, but it will be appreciated by those who are fans of the genre (and perhaps those who are not). The musicianship is solid, as are the vocals, which border on indie yelp and technically good vocals. The song writing usually remains interesting, with the only downfall being the inconsistency of the lyrics. I recommend this album as it is an interesting and enjoyable album. Also, if Berube ever stops by your town or university, I suggest going to see him. His live performance is generally more passionate then the album, as an aside.