Review Summary: Tonight you’re wildfire.
Caleb McAlpine – for the time being at least – is probably best known to both you and me as the latest iteration in an extremely long line of world-weary, guitar/banjo-toting troubadours. But where the Canadian singer-songwriter might just have a slight edge over his budding contemporaries is in the vocal department – imagine if you will, the sum total of Benedict Cumberbatch, Beck Hansen, and Alan Rickman holding a round of simultaneous elocution against each other in a perfectly soundproofed room; do that, and you’re already starting to tap into the zeitgeist of McAlpine’s set of pipes.
Thankfully however, a less mentally taxing alternative also exists: All Things New
, the twenty-year old’s first EP, was released on Bandcamp for both streaming and purchase earlier this month. This mini-collection of six songs, as McAlpine himself helpfully explains, is the end result of a week of concentrated channeling of his voice into two microphones that he had set up himself in a derelict building. More importantly, the resulting 23-minute concoction is an interesting and often compelling listen that frequently threatens to crystallize the young Canadian into a growing concern.
Architecturally, McAlpine’s music is based around the near-obsessive repetition of guitar and banjo interplay, which causes most of the songs on All Things New
to have a tendency of defaulting to the realm of the pastoral and the bucolic. But while this might give off an initial impression of overarching simplicity, it should be noted that none of the songs on All Things New
feel even the slightest bit pedestrian. This is primarily a result of McAlpine wisely electing to craft his songs from the bottom-up before slowly layering in an increasing amount of load-bearing beams into the mix. And then, of course, there is that
voice, which flits from peak to peak like a particularly omniscient deity.
From a thematic standpoint, All Things New
draws upon both McAlpine’s relatively slender years and his constant desire to emphasize personal intuition over logic and reason. EP opener “All Heading West” is a case in point: here, the Canadian singer-songwriter operates in his area of greatest expertise, singing sagely over a bed of roiling guitar and female backup vocals in a successful attempt at encapsulating the uncertainty and guarded optimism that often drapes one’s coming of age. “There’s no telling what comes next/When we’re all just heading west,” prods McAlpine gently, and the idea of having to leave your home to find a new place in the world has never seemed so compelling. The excellent “Wildfire” follows a similar template, working deftly in and out of shifting lyrical scenery which is itself equally informed by both a natural, organic sensibility and a deliberate eschewing of complex musical arrangements. Then there’s the acerbic “Too Soon”, which swells and ebbs tantalizingly before taking a page out of Sufjan Steven’s “Romulus” to cast a coarse, miffed air upon the listener. “And you dream too little,” pronounces McAlpine, and the entire thing comes off as a stinging rebuke – which is probably exactly what he intended to happen. A similar dissonance emerges in the lively “Knees”, but the piece is much more restrained dynamically, with McAlpine showing off an impressive degree of control in the song’s bridge to cap off what is easily his best vocal performance on the entire EP.
Yet the type of heart at the core of All Things New
is perhaps best summed up by closing track “All Things Wearisome”, a slightly more fulsome work that feels as if it was originally designed to operate on a much larger scale. Here, McAlpine and the guesting Nathaniel Sherman adopt a series of call-and-response vocals across a musical body which itself possesses a tangible pain of composition. The song does feel slightly uneven overall, and oftentimes it’s difficult to tell where the roles of either vocalist end or begin, but in the face of such blinding promise, none of that really seems to matter. What McAlpine has done here is to decisively deliver a statement of growing edges, which ultimately allows All Things New
to close with the pervading sense that this is definitely not the last we have heard from the Canadian singer-songwriter. “What has been will be again,” vow McAlpine and his compatriot repeatedly on the EP's closing track, and it seems rather foolish to disagree.