Grit Laskin,
Earthly Concerns
(Borealis, 1998)

This is not your typical singer-songwriter album, but then, Grit Laskin is not a typical singer-songwriter, either. He is famous as a guitar-maker (under the name of William Laskin) and is a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, mandolin and concertina on this album. He sings as well, of course, tours, co-founded Borealis Records and helps organize The Woods music camp in Muskoka, Ontario, each year. Somehow he has time to write, too.

Grit Laskin's pieces are long and free-flowing, sometimes rambling. They often summon images of characters moving about a stage, and Laskin's writing has a dramatic turn that would do well in the theater. One of the "conversations" (as Laskin calls them) even comes with its own stage directions: "As the song opens, I have just entered the grounds of a small, tree-shaded cemetery," he says in the liner notes introducing the title track, a song about those (including Laskin's mother) who died too young. This soliloquy is reminiscent of a scene one might find in one of the more thoughtful musicals and its melody, a slow waltz, returns in an instrumental version as the last track on the album. "The Two Centuries" is a conversation between the hopeful 21st century and the blisteringly cynical 20th century. As the 21st century speaks of future potential and promise, the 20th lists the wartime horrors of its tenure. As one listens to the song now, one thinks of the baptism of fire the 21st century has received since this song was written, and that lends it an extra poignancy. A standout is "If I Were," which uses language reminiscent of a riddle as it describes the making of a pair of ice skates; fiddler J.P. Cormier appears on this track.

As the album title indicates, Laskin's subject matter is usually contemporary life and its various ills. His songs do not deliver the simplistic slogans that so many topical songs do, but those who turn to music to escape from the stories in the news will not be able to do that with this album. "Hi Sal, Have You Checked Your E-mail?" is an often hilarious indictment of technological toys and those that overuse them but it telegraphs its ending, diluting its impact. "The Most Amazing Thing in the World" is a song about the resilience of a young girl in the face of horrendous abuse by several family members. Laskin tries to convey his wonder at the girl's unsinkable capacity for joy with a hopeful-sounding melody but what is meant to be uplifting ends up sounding terribly incongruous against the catalogue of the girl's miseries that Laskin intones in the song's verses. "Resister" is the closest Laskin comes to slogan-mongering: in it, he declares his rebellion against lack of compassion. Resisting the sing-along chorus is nearly impossible. Other songs in the socially-conscious vein are a paean to the many facets of Toronto ("My City") and a concertina-backed monologue about what's wrong with popular culture ("Fast and Loud").

There are also a few instrumental pieces on Earthly Concerns, and they are a delight with their peppy melodies and sharp picking. "Driving to The Woods/Sorry I'm Late" gets the album off to a rousing start with Laskin's mandolin and the klezmerlike touches of Kathryn Moses' tenor sax, among other things. "Flipside" is another instrumental romp that starts off with Laskin's mandolin and picks up momentum and other instruments along the way. To be honest, I would have traded a few of the songs for more of these instrumentals, but this is a matter of personal taste.

If you like your songs neat, tidy and nontopical with not a syllable out of place, this album is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want to follow the road less traveled and investigate a different approach to songwriting, this may be the ticket. Laskin offers food for thought and a dash of fun on Earthly Concerns.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 4 January 2003

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