Gordie Sampson,
(Maple Music, 2004)

It's been about five years between Gordie Sampson's debut, Stones, and his new album, Sunburn. Common wisdom says that waiting five years between albums can be a real career killer -- unless, of course, the reason is a successful songwriting career that often puts solo work on the backburner. Such is the case for Sampson, an in-demand writer and producer who has finally taken the time to put a few years worth of irresistible songs on the record with Sunburn.

Stones had many of the trademarks of the modern Eastern Canadian songwriter: earnest ballads like "Still Workin' on a Dream" and even a few traditional instrumentals mixed among more straightforward pop-rock fare. And the roster of people involved in Stones reads like a who's who of music in Eastern Canada: Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, Bruce Guthro, a few Rankins -- pretty much everyone. This time it's a more solitary affair, with few musical guests and a steady co-writing team (Nashville songwriters Troy Verges and Blair Daly) contributing to most of Sunburn's songs.

Most of the traditional elements that popped up on his first album are gone, the mixed-bag aesthetic replaced by a more mature and consistent sound. The songs, although infused with Sampson's unique style, have a more mainstream tone -- no surprise, given his time spent writing for other performers in Nashville and Europe. In fact, some of the songs (notably "Paris" and "Hanging By a Wire") were written with Verges and Daly on a trip from London and Paris.

Most of the standout tracks -- the title track, "Don't Make Me Do This," "Fly on the Wall," "You (Or Somebody Like You)" -- explore the theme of damaged relationships of one sort or another; they're well-crafted tales of departed loves, broken down communications and regret. One exception is the bouncy, playful "All I Know," written several years ago with friends Carlo Spinazzola, who passed away last year at the age of 33, and Steve MacDougall of Sydney's Slowcoaster. Another exception is the excellent closer "Your Place in This World," an optimistic send-off that contrasts the dire situations described before: "I hope you get back ten times what you give me / Face the facts without taking them so seriously ... I hope you make your heartaches into history / Don't play the games but take all of the victories."

Sunburn is dedicated to Spinazzola, the blues musician and peer of Sampson and the likes of Tom Fidgen (Sunfish) among a generation of promising Cape Breton songwriters. Included is the Spinazzola quotation, "Words are tools too blunt." Perhaps that's true, but -- much like Spinazzola with his slow-burning blues -- Sampson doesn't have that problem here. Heartache is a well-worn subject, no doubt, but Sampson makes it sound fresh with lines like these from "Don't Make Me Do This," "You cut sharp with the air you breath / Like it was stone or alabaster / You come on like a subway breeze / And you fade even faster."

Those looking for the traditional sounds of Sampson's first album may be disappointed at first, but anyone looking for a strong song cycle from one of Canada's best songwriters and greatest musical talents will be pleased. With Sunburn, Gordie Sampson reminds us why he's cherished at home and coveted around the music world.

- Rambles
written by Sean Roach
published 2 October 2004