Before listening to a record for the first time, I don’t like to read too much about it. This was the case when I first heard Dave Gunning’s latest album, Lift, which brought me back to a chilly night in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. It was the night I stumbled by chance into a theatre where J.P. Cormier was playing, when I was so visibly entranced by the songs and his virtuosic playing that the usher allowed me to stand at the back of the room and listen despite not having a ticket to the sold out show.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Dave’s songs reminded me of this night. As it turns out, J.P. Cormier played on Lift and Dave has worked as a producer with him. I’m sure the texture of Dave’s production and J.P.’s playing helped me to reach that comparison, but more than that it’s the timeless construction and quality of the songs that had me identifying Dave Gunning as a member of an elite group of east coast tunesmiths along with the likes of J.P. Cormier, Catherine Maclellan and David Francey.
Lift is an album laced with nostalgia. From the opening track, “They Don’t Do That No More”, a lament for a slower, more natural way of life that has gone by the wayside, nearly every song on Lift considers what we may be leaving behind in the endless march of progress. Dave is constantly looking over his shoulder to the proverbial Good Old Days, but he doesn’t stray too far from honest, personal material for his stories to feel disconnected from modern ears.
Like all great balladeers, Dave’s songs have a strong sense of place. Even the songs with titles pointing to far-away places, “Pasadena” and “Alberta Gold”, speak of Maritimers out of their element, and it’s hard to picture any of the stories taking place more than a stone’s throw from the Atlantic. The imagery in “Breaker’s Yard”, salty wind and ferris wheels, is especially vivid and makes it a highlight of the album for me.
Dave breaks from the mold for the song “Sing It Louder”, a call-to-arms protest song consciously written in the style of Pete Seeger. Perhaps for that reason, this track doesn’t resonate as well with me as the rest of the album. In imitating Guthrie’s style, Dave sacrifices some of his own distinctive voice, resulting in a song that lacks specificity and narrative drive. While this is a politically charged album, in most of the tracks the politics are couched in believable stories about people and places, and the songs are stronger for that.
The instrumentation throughout is tastefully sparse, performed primarily by Dave himself on guitar, bass and banjo with a few guests thrown in to provide a little bit of colour and textural variety in the form of some fiddle, steel and harmony, most fully realized on the stand-out track “I Robbed the Co. Store”. With a few exceptions, the album is a essentially a guitar and voice album, showcasing the strength of Dave’s songs and performance and providing an experience very close to seeing the man live.
As I lover of the great Canadian folk song, I think this is the best way to hear a collection of tunes such as this. The textures and arrangements are used conservatively, only as needed to support and augment the lyrics and melody, the real meat of the music. With Lift, he has managed what few have pulled off, to make a record that sits firmly within the folk tradition while remaining contemporary and relevant. By stripping away the artifice Dave Gunning has created an immediate and deeply human album.
Dave plays a Stonebridge G25CC (grand auditorium, cedar top, cocobolo back and sides), a OOM30SM (the guitar in the feature photo), and a 12 string.
1. They Don’t Do That No More
2. A Tractor
3. This Changin’ Wind
4. Sing It Louder
5. Breakers’ Yard
6. A Halo That Fits
7. I Robbed The Company Store
8. From On Higher Ground
9. Love Fell In
10. Alberta Gold
12. The Red Onion
13. To Be With You