Spirit of the West,
Open Heart Symphony
(Warner Music Canada, 1996)

Too often, a rock band goes symphonic and comes off sounding like premature Muzak. Fortunately for fans of Vancouver band Spirit of the West, that didn't happen on Open Heart Symphony.

The band has certainly grown far beyond its early Celtic roots, although hints still remain. What we find on this 1996 recording is an enthusiastic combination of the band's earthy folk-rock sound -- the lyrics are as sharp as ever -- and a lovely orchestral framework which embellishes the music without ever dominating. The only thing missing here is the band's more raucous side; for the orchestra, I suppose, they wanted to be on their best behavior, and the very lively and rowdy drinking songs didn't fit the playlist.

Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann are still Spirit of the West's primary writers. They merge their talents for this album with George Blondheim, who handled the orchestral arrangements. Clyde Mitchell directed the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for the live performance, recorded on May 12 and 13, 1995, at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver.

Two additional tracks, "Christmas Eve" and "Let the Ass Bray," were recorded separately, in January 1996, in the studio. Besides the band (Kelly, Mann, Vince Ditrich, Hugh McMillan and Linda McRae), the bonus tracks were performed by arranger Blondheim on piano, director Mitchell on French horn, violinists Cam Wilson and Brian Larson, viola player Reg Quiring and cellist Charles Inkman.

All in all, it's a nice collection of tunes, kicking off with the odd "Williamson's Garage." It was inspired, Mann wrote in the liner notes, by a painting of the same name by L.L. Fitzgerald which hangs in the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. Mann apparently didn't like it very much. The symphony's horn section in particular makes itself heard in this one, to excellent effect.

The album next takes a somewhat morbid twist with "Daisy's Dead," written after a family barbecue at which Kelly's Aunt Daisy passed away. Although it begins with the unusual imagery of her body being flown home to Scotland in the baggage section of the airplane -- and she'd wanted to see the movie being shown in the passenger section, after all -- the song is a loving salute to her memory.

"Frankfurt I'm Sorry" is a musical apology to the German city, the inhabitants of which the touring band had offended by labeling them all "losers." I'm not sure it's the best motivation for a song, but the apology sounds sincere.

Back to their roots, the band launches into a traditional Irish reel, "Christmas Eve," with a light touch. The studio ensemble kept its involvement to a minimum, adding a faint layer of strings beneath Kelly's excellent flute playing.

The next song, "Resurrection," is an absolutely lovely tribute by Mann for a woman he never met. He attended a wake, he explains, for a friend's wife, and the glowing eulogies from those her knew her left him with the sense of familiarity. "I think I would have liked her."

"The Miller's Daughter" is a Kelly composition, a slow waltz written for his wife, Alison, which again reveals the band's Celtic roots. The simple start builds slowly into a larger symphonic arrangement -- a progression which nicely unveils several sides to the melody.

"Bare Branches" is a gentle anthem to Peggy Claude-Pierre and the Montreux Clinic, both renowned for their treatment of eating disorders. "Strange Bedfellows" targets Canada's Reform Party as a hotbed of ignorance and racism, led by the spectacled Preston Manning. "It's not the words that scare me / It's that someone's listening...."

The mellow "Kiss and Tell" also draws its inspiration from an unlikely source: the collapse of a marriage caused by information of marital duplicity revealed following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

One of my favorite tracks here is "Milk, Tea and Oranges," which had its source in a shopping list found on a Toronto street. Besides the staples mentioned in the title, the list included bullets -- and the band derived a possible meaning behind that strange combination. In this case, the man finding the list has just lost his partner to suicide. This track is one of the album's best examples for using orchestration to add a sense of sweeping urgency to the tune.

The closing track, "Let the Ass Bray," is a slap at Thom Yorke, a Radiohead singer who verbally assaulted his audience after rejecting a request to sing the band's hit "Creep." Again mellow in tone, the song has biting lyrics -- "My, how rude, so impolite / All this on your night of nights / Little man of smallish frame / Crushed beneath your pop band name / Your table manners left behind / In an Oxford flat at suppertime / You came of rage on centre stage / Now sleep's not all you're losing" -- which prove the misfortune of acting publicly stupid when there's a clever lyricist in the crowd.

OK, I admit it, I miss the band's wilder side. The party songs were always among my favorites, so the mellower tone of this album is a bit of a letdown. Or, at least that's what I expected, but I found myself listening to the album over and over again anyway. Certainly, writers Kelly and Mann demonstrated handily their ability to draw clever, insightful lyrics from a wide array of mundane and extraordinary sources.

Anyone who likes Spirit of the West just a bit but thinks they're too rowdy should definitely give this kinder, gentler version of the band a good listening to. Those, like me, who prefer the rowdy bits shouldn't overlook it, however; the package here is curiously good.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Check out Spirit of the West at CDNow.