Mike Freedman,
Postcards from the South
(Earth Man, 2001)

What is freedom? Is it what you have or what you lack, nothing left to lose or everything yet to gain? Is it the absence of struggle, or the strength to tackle the obvious trials ahead?

You may find yourself considering these questions while listening to Mike Freedman's 2001 release Postcards from the South, but not because his lyrics are the only grist for your musical mill. With a diverse collection of songs that are primarily folk-rock but also incorporate elements of jazz, blues, Indian guitar stylings and African tribal percussion, the Toronto-based Freedman makes a strong, coherent musical statement that's deep and multitextural without being overly pretentious.

The opening track, "Free", sets the tone. Freedman's effective singing and guitar-playing drive the supple song forward without overwhelming the other instruments and backing vocals, which are well executed and excellently integrated. The intriguing lyrics here, including "I have a conscience/and I am free," start an examination of boundaries and opportunities that continues throughout these songs.

Another highlight is "Open My Heart," which moves forward on the dual prongs of a delicate Indian-styled guitar riff and an electric guitar power chord. This combination of folk, rock and world styles includes both meditative pauses and outright bombast, makes fine use of Ali Lipson's vocals and manages to keep all of this integrated and appropriate to lyrics of release and acceptance.

In the first six songs, Freedman arranges an intriguing balance of musical styles to produce folk-rock that's emotionally compelling while still being powerful and interestingly arranged. Unfortunately, Postcards from the South doesn't manage to close with quite the same finesse. The final tracks seem to be side trips into further musical styles without the same unified experimentation, strong songwriting or depth of thought.

"This Drug" creates a woozy blues-rock mood, with appropriately off-center guitar accompaniment, but the anti-drug lyrics are slight and the vocal style doesn't suit Freedman. "Going Home With You" is even more insubstantial, providing only vague amusement with its tongue in cheek, one night stand seeking lyrics and its straightforward Cajun blues. The song does at least feature fine harmonica melodies by Ansgar Schroer. Finally, "When You Say You Love Me" is a mellow lounge jazz ballad, closer to the earlier tracks in tone with its meditation on relationships, but still flat in lyrical content and forced in vocal execution, more like an interesting attempt than a full success.

Despite this, Postcards from the South remains a solid work which displays Freedman's singing and songwriting talents and the wide and pronounced skills of his fellow musicians. If the final tracks aren't quite what they might be, perhaps that's just the price we pay for what came before, the limitation inherited from this brand of musical freedom-seeking. After all, freedom can also mean the ability to make mistakes, to take side trips that may terminate in dead ends.

If indeed that's the price to be paid here, then it's certainly worth it for overall results like these.

- Rambles
written by Ken Fasimpaur
published 8 February 2003