Catherine MacLellan has one of the finest voices in folk or country currently, with consummate songwriting craft and a growing reputation as a charismatic and entrancing live performer. Following her double win at the East Coast Music Awards in 2010, fourth album Silhouette finds the Canadian singer-songwriter mining a rich seam on a terrific record of sustained quality. For those whose personal musical sphere does not intercept, Venn-like, the orb of folky Canadian country, it might not stagger or astonish – but her unquestionable prowess and more mainstream sound on this disc deserve to attract the wider listener investment she would richly reward.
Enthralling as ever and grander than before, at just under an hour Silhouette is a progression from previous albums: plusher and bolder and a fine statement of the first-class talent MacLellan possesses. ‘Stealin’ is a classic opener: breezy and jaunty, pushing a fuller, rock-enriched sound that instantly ups the game in poise and spunk. This is an inviting beginning – purposeful, self-possessed and foot-tappingly fun too – that gives way to a darker mood with the sombre swing and “bloody curse” of ‘Keep on Fighting’. It’s obviously an emotive topic, challenging to develop in a distinctive way – and while there’s always going to be a role for folk music in pitching the personal story as political, these lyrics are less incisive than some. Nevertheless, MacLellan does strike just the right tone of conflict-induced, impotent anxiety that pervades social consciousness if not the collective conscience.
Much of the album tackles more introspective subjects, MacLellan investing herself into her music and conveying this honesty as well as anyone. In fact, there isn’t really any sense of performance, which is one of the reasons why its so magnetic. ‘Eastern Girl’ epitomises the impression of semi-autobiographic authenticity and showcases both MacLellan’s gorgeous vocals and gloriously blossoming maturity as a songwriter. The retrospective, nostalgic tinge produces one of those achingly pure and wonderfully emotional pieces of music that never really says much beyond the hint of lingering homesickness. It’s a simple yearning, sung with charm and weight. Next, she runs through a languid sequence of other subtly different styles – an assured, steady aura of solemnity on ‘Keep My Eye on You’, soothing and unhurried on ‘Lines on the Road’, and soft and shambling over an easygoing guitar line on ‘Black Crow’, complete with delectable, simple refrain: “Couldn’t sleep the night away, couldn’t wake the day”. Equable and exquisite, there is a surfeit of loveliness on show.
What I pine for at times, inevitably and in spite of myself, is the impeccable rustic rootsiness of Water in the Ground, so spiritedly sensitive, smart-witted and sweetly insouciant. The sleeker sound of Silhouette wants for a shaggier, raggedy tinge here or there – perhaps the closest approximation to its predecessor’s good-humoured groove being ‘Old Tin Can’, a delicate lilt atop the jauntiest tune. It couldn’t be called rough-round-the-edges but, like much else on Silhouette, recaptures that affable, ambling allure with ease.
Another of the distinctive features of MacLellan’s output thus far has been the presence in the lyrics of her late father, Gene, a singer and songwriter best known for ‘Snowbird’. Silhouette is the first album Catherine has put out without a track about her dad but she does include a lovely reworking of his signature song – a crystal clear duet with Jim Cuddy – that is the triumph of this album. This is no disrespect to the junior MacLellan’s songwriting: it’s a tender and wonderful collaboration of crestfallen heartbreak.
The final of the fourteen tunes is ‘Chop that Wood’, a fuzzy sequence of dawdling piano chords and sparse percussion behind MacLellan’s pure vocals. About a partner whose love is expressed through his work rather than emotional support, it’s a touching and sweetly-sorrowful moment of pathos. After the pining and regret, MacLellan finishes on a note of togetherness and reconciliation.
Often conventional but always so composed, this is an artist at the top of her game. Admittedly, there is a danger that the format becomes familiar and the fare a little indistinct along the way – too much of a good thing, in other words – but then again… she’s so good. A more pertinent criticism might be that the (typically eloquent) lyrics occasionally tend towards the generic – “All the money in the world, it won’t buy you love”, opens ‘True Love’, an idea put rather more succinctly by Paul McCartney – although a twist is to come.
If you find this blend of soulful, stoic and strummed acoustic country too earnest, forlorn or guitar-heavy, there isn’t much here to change your mind. Silhouette is so wonderfully warm and radiant, though, it is sure to to be treasured by the rest of us.