James Gordon,
Mining for Gold:
Twenty Years of Song Writing

(Borealis, 2000)

The double CD Mining for Gold: Twenty Years of Song Writing is a 14-karat collection of songs James Gordon recorded with Tamarack and as a solo performer.

The first CD contains 19 songs written and recorded as a member of the trio Tamarack. Most of the tracks are from previous recordings, but three -- "Harvest Train," "Stuart and Lillian" and "The Virginia Brand" -- are newly recorded for the collection.

The CD opens with the hymn-like "Frobisher Bay," sung a cappella. The verses about the whaling ship that lingered too far north into the winter tell a mournful tale, and the unaccompanied voices blend in beautiful and stark harmony. Gordon and Tamarack continue with musical storytelling throughout the CD.

"Harvest Train" and "Home to You Once More" both tell about the trains that carried men from eastern Canada out west for jobs harvesting grain. "Harvest Train" conveys the mournful sound of the train whistle and the rhythm of the train wheels rolling on the tracks. "Home to You Once More" has a brighter sound underscored with pennywhistle and punctuated with a tambourine as the narrator looks forward to going home again. Again, you can hear the train rhythm underlying the song.

The songs are full of stories, mostly historical; some are contemporary such as "Stuart and Lillian," a sweet, slightly silly lilting waltz tune that tells the story of "Canada's first huge lottery winners." Overall, thought, there is a solemnity and weightiness to most of the songs which are indeed performed with solid cohesiveness.

The second CD, comprising solo recordings, kicks off in high gear, starting with the worldbeat sound of "Looking for Livingstone." The tune is infectious, and the lyrics are pointed and witty; I don't think there's a person alive who can't relate to lines such as "There's a deep dark continent / Between what I said and what I meant." Gordon takes a new direction with "Your Wandering Gypsy Boy," where his voice takes on a full exuberance which complements the lush accompaniment. The next song is an "on the road too long song" (there are a couple of these), "Head Me Home," where the vocals, lyrics and music mesh perfectly.

Gordon has a remarkable talent for evoking the images of his songs through the music. "Essequibo River" starts out with a brisk sea shanty call-and-response, then flows smoothly into the main song which evokes exactly the image of a stately, steadily flowing river.

Many of the songs are just plain lovely. The tragic "Anna's Dress" has an eerie, dreamy music box sound that effectively inspires foreboding in the listener. (Without giving away the whole story, I would like to know how Gordon could have heard the story from one of Anna's descendants!) "God Snapped Her Fingers" is one of the best love songs I've ever heard and had me reaching for the repeat button frequently. Shelley Coopersmith's violin solo is heart-poundingly gorgeous. Coopersmith also puts her violin to heartbreaking use in the sweetly sentimental "Margaret's Waltz."

"St. Patrick's Day" is the anthem for any Celtic musician who has had to endure endless requests for "Danny Boy" and "My Wild Irish Rose" on St. Patrick's Day. The melody has a hint of "The Minstrel Boy" in it and is catchy without being annoying.

It isn't possible to describe all 38 selections on these CDs, but I can say that Gordon is a consummate storyteller, lyricist and composer, capturing and conveying the essence of the ordinary men and women depicted in his songs. If I believed in past life regression, I'd be perfectly happy for one of those lives to be a James Gordon song.

Dig into your pocket for a copy of James Gordon's Mining for Gold, and you're sure to strike it musically rich.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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