Valdy & Gary Fjellgaard,
Contenders Two: Still in the Running
(Stony Plain, 2007)

Two guys, two voices, two guitars. It's a simple, homey formula and this album sticks to it almost without fail. Sure, there's a tambourine on "VLT" and one of the guitars is sometimes a mandolin. Upright bass and some subdued percussion augment the arrangements throughout this disc. But if the songs were stripped of these elements I don't know that they'd be greatly missed.

The one exception to this statement is the track "Billy Miner," which is much more of a band piece than the other nine tracks on Contenders Two. Perhaps this track ought to have been parenthetically titled "Contenders Four."

The musicianship on this disc is what I might term "casually competent." Both Valdy and Fjellgaard have been at this music game plenty long enough that they're not out to prove their prowess. The result is a disc that exudes an air of having been recorded in a living room full of the musicians' close friends. It's a testament to the experience of these players that they can capture that looseness and sense of fun in a studio setting. There's an obvious camaraderie that exists between these two elder statesmen of the Canadian folk music scene.

However, I find the songs on Contenders Two lackluster. Even among the five original tracks featured on the disc the melodies too frequently feel recycled. "Still in the Running" and "The Fever," while pleasantly hummable, are melodically predictable. And while the only Valdy original, "VLT," does have a distinct personality, it's a clownish face that ends up making the song seem frivolous rather than poignant. Despite a similarly amused anger in the lyric, this track certainly doesn't have the gravitas that his early-'70s hit "Play Me a Rock 'n' Roll Song" captured.

Among the six cover versions featured on Contenders Two, perhaps the one that best expresses the flavor of the album is Mickey Newbury's "Them Old Songs." "Doggone my soul, how I love them old songs / They were a comfort to me when I was alone / The dancing stops but the music goes on / Doggone my soul, how I love them old songs."

My favorite of the covers is the John Prine-penned "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," which provides one of the more up-tempo moments on this disc. The interplay between Valdy's guitar and Fjellgaard's mandolin perfectly accents the lighthearted melody of this masked tragedy of lost love and confused heartache. For the most part, however, the album chooses more bland, cliched emotional content and I'm left, at the end of the disc, feeling pleasant but not deeply moved by the songs. A nice evening with old friends, but no one has said anything controversial or challenging, nothing that will have me thinking the next day.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

19 April 2008

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