Classifying things seems to be, for some reason, a basic human need. And it is axiomatic that our systems for classification have built-in limits and conceptual gaps: Archaeopteryx lithographica is, therefore, a bird. And Wolfsong Night, a collaboration between Tim Clement and Kim Deschamps, is New Age.
Clement, a Canadian composer/performer, has done a number of collaborations with Mychael Danna, which is how I first became aware of him. Deschamps is a highly regarded guitarist, also from Canada, and, on the basis of this album, highly regarded for good reason. The liner notes on this CD do not, unfortunately, clarify the ways in which the artists have contributed to what is certainly one of the least classifiable recordings I have ever run across. The forces employed in delivering these fourteen tracks give an idea of just how diverse an approach Clement and Deschamps have utilized: pedal steel guitar, accordion, saxophones, flutes, percussion, bowed guitars, whalesong fractals, natural sounds (including wolf calls), keyboards and synthesizers, zither, flute, and spoken and sung vocals. In fact, in light of the actual content of the album, the blurb from the back of the jewel case is hysterically funny: “Languid steel guitars, bluesy accordon and soulful woodwinds echo the call of the wild while exotic percussion and minimalist strains remind us of our post-modern experience.” Yeah, right – you can write my eulogy.
“Deserted Inlet,” which opens the album, is what a lot of people would think of as “typical New Age,” i.e., nature sounds, including bird calls, wolf songs, and the sound of waves lapping the shore; it is, in some degree, deceptive, and at 2:29, doesn’t last all that long, and the mood is broken in the very next track, “Waterline.” I wouldn’t call the steel guitars languid so much as slinky, with a certain amount of sass: Deschamps obviously knows what he’s doing, and does it very well, and seems to owe as much to the Grand Ol’ Opry as he does to jazz.
Other things happen: “Rivertalk,” with vocals by Kathrin Michaud and Lucie Vignault, is pretty tribal, being basically a chant (I think this may be where the Inuit throat singing comes in, courtesy of Ian Tamblyn), ending in one of the vocalists breaking into hysterical laughter. We segue instantly into “Pointed Arrows,” a sort of Hollywood treatment of what might be (have been? Once upon a time?) a native rendition of something. (Don’t get me wrong – it’s really pretty wonderful, and goes into a catchy world-beat dance rhythm, with piccolo and saxophones rounding out the guitars and keyboards.) Regrettably, the title track, on which Mychael Danna makes an appearance massaging the wolf songs, is a crashing bore. The prize track, for my money, is “Angels,” with a narrative by an uncredited woman who sounds too much like my Aunt Rosalie from North Carolina, accompanied by synthesizer, pedal steel guitar, and accordion, with additional vocals by Tim Clement. It is at once humorous, touching, and reverent.
Clement and Deschamps, who apparently have worked together quite a bit, explore a lot of interesting territory here, and pull in a lot of traditions and a lot of resources. I could have hoped for more information from the liner notes, which just give the basic information on the songs and the briefest possible bios of Clement and Deschamps – in English and French, as though that made up for not saying anything. Since the web doesn’t offer much more information, it looks like one of those cases of having to move to Toronto and hang out to find out more about these guys.
Part of the reason I like this album so much is the sheer unexpectedness of it. I tend to look at CDs as single works – a lifetime of listening to classical music, I suppose. This is obviously not the case with most non-classical recordings, although one could plead the case of the “concept album,” but Wolfsong Night fits into this view with no trouble: even as different as these tracks are from each other, each song is like a facet of a gem. When this one is on the player, there is always a smile on my face.
(Chacra Records, 1995)