Tiller's Folly,
A River So Wide
(Factor, 2007)

In performance Tiller's Folly, out of Vancouver, British Columbia, is an acoustic trio. On this recording, other musicians -- notably Americans John Cowan and Larry Knechtel -- step in to fill out the sound with harmony vocals, electric guitar, keyboards and drums. The result may lead you to think of a kind of Canadian Fairport Convention -- not the classic Fairport line-up of Liege & Lief and Full House, focused on traditional and trad-sounding songs, but the later, still extant Fairport, where the material is largely original and folk but one of the genre influences.

Tiller's Folly's evolution, I take it, is something like Fairport's. I base this on my reading, not my listening, since this is the first TF album I've heard. (It is depressing to contemplate how little of Canada's rich folk scene filters down to those of us living in the big country to the immediate south.) All of the songs are the creations of acoustic guitarist/lead vocalist Bruce Coughlan, with two-cowrites by bandmate Nolan Murray, who also provides fiddle, mandolin and banjo. (The third member is bassist Laurence Knight.) The band's first album was released in 1997, but Coughlan recorded before as a singer of traditional Scottish and Irish songs.

Given my trad-leaning tastes, I suspect I would be more wildly enamored of the earlier recordings, but A River So Wide is far from unpleasant listening. Predictably, the song to which I am most drawn is "Last of the Royal Engineers," which not coincidentally is the one that sounds the most like an old ballad. Surely, too, another influence has to have been Gordon Lightfoot's 1960s epic "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a romantic evocation of the -- in prosaic fact -- unromantic economic development of a "new" nation -- new, in any event, to the Europeans who found their way to it and who, for better and worse, cleared the natural landscape, to replace much of it with industry, technology, transportation, jobs and massive wealth to a few.

Happily, the influence of the Anglo-Celtic tradition is detectable even in River's more poppish or Californified country-rock moments. Tiller's Folly knows how to conjure up a strong, linger-in-the-psychic-ear melody, even if sometimes attached to onward-and-upward lyrics that verge on mawkishness (e.g., the title song and the well-meant "Take Pride") or too-too romantic sentiments ("Irish Rose"). Coughlan's more fulfilling compositions, however, are awash in a convincing sense of loss, desire and yearning. The wonderful closer, "The Chestnut Lane," just begs for bluegrass treatment.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

3 May 2008

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