Have you ever had a relationship so intense that you have to live on opposite sides of the country?
If you have, you’ll understand why the Yukon’s Kim Barlow, a renowned cellist and banjo player, likes to keep 8,000 km between her and her Spring Breakup collaborator, former Ontarian now Newfoundland resident Matthias Kom, the lead singer and ukelele player of The Burning Hell.
As Spring Breakup they combine their immense songwriting talent to find the lighter side of some dark subjects. Their new album, It’s Not You, It’s Me, is a collection of songs gathered from true life breakup stories Kom and Barlow collected, retold with their considerable wit.
The songs build on the seeming mismatch of Barlow and Kom’s voices – Barlow’s light, higher pitch contrasting sharply with Kom’s deep, melancholic voice which dives into the sombre Leonard Cohen depths. This combination could get depressing fast.
But it’s their approach to this emotionally dark subject that stands out. The songs are largely on Jamaican acoustic mento music, a precursor to reggae and ska with a similar sound to calypso, along with folk, country, and “melodramatic popular song” (as described on their Myspace page).
“It’s Not Me, It’s You” takes all the clichés of doomed love affairs and inverts them. After some amusing breakup stories, they advise, “Nobody wants to hear lies/Just look right in their eyes and tell them/It’s not me, it’s you/It might be cruel but at least it’s true.”
All this is sung over a jaunty Jamaican syncopated beat with a banjo solo. It’s a breakup you can dance to.
Kom and Barlow switch writing duties, each writing half the songs, showing off Kom’s frequent wordplay and internal rhymes and Barlow’s melodies and imagery. They also break up the vocals, often exchanging lines like characters in conversation.
In “The Effect I Have on Women,” they commiserate over their being “too intimidating for dating.” In “Unprincipled” they take on the characters of a student-teacher romance. And each sings a version of “I’m Sorry That I Tried to Punch You in the Face,” giving both sides of the story.
The songs often linger in soft, acoustic melancholy, but there are faster ones, backed with a full band. “Never Eat Alone” is fast folk-rock, and “Puppy Dogs & Rainbows”, though a country-inspired waltz, is flushed out with full band sound.
The CD is fantastic, bringing together diverse musical and lyrical styles from two performers whose talents are as vast the country they live on either side of. It’s a great addition to anyone’s CD collection.
Outstanding Tracks: “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and “Unprincipled”.
Kim Barlow: Saplings
After a period of feeling down (I wonder if collecting breakup stories may have played a part in that feeling), Kim Barlow was inspired to write some happy, optimistic songs, which she’s released as Saplings.
In many of these songs, Barlow draws inspiration from nature, looking for strength and hope.
“Pine Nut”, a song about a seed growing from ashes of a forest fire, stands out as a song of inspiration: “Nothing can stop me, nothing can stop me/From being the tree that I’m aiming to be/I will protect me, I’ll take care of me/The lovely tall swaying/The tree I will be.”
Barlow’s skill with winding, unusual lyrics is highlighted as well, as in “The Warming Shack”: “If you’ve recently fell through the ice/Or torn from encounters with wolves and wild boars/Come in.”
“Lions” shows that Barlow isn’t just a lyricist, she can write beautiful, original music. Bryden Baird’s subtle trumpet and flugelhorn never overpower the lyrics but still emphasize the melody on this song and the others he plays on.
Other songs feature Ryan Driver on synthesizer, adding the sort of electronic effects that Barlow experimented in Father Daughter, her collaboration with sound artist Jordy Walker. The effects are quiet again, strengthening the melodies by adding unexpected sounds to the rhythms.
Saplings can be seen as the flipside of Spring Breakup’s It’s Not You, It’s Me. These are songs of love and strength. The music is deceptively light and the arrangements more subtle. There may not be as much wit and wordplay, but these songs don’t need them. Like the tree in “Pine Nut,” they stand tall on their own.
Outstanding Tracks: “Lions”and “Jenny & the Whale (No. 2)”
Spring Breakup plays at the Jarvis Street Saloon (the old 2-0-2) on Monday, Feb. 7 and the following night at the Legion Hall in Dawson City, with klezmer accordionist Geoff Berner and the Yukon’s own Old Cabin. Kim Barlow will also appear at the Yukon Arts Centre on Thursday and Friday, Feb. 10 and 11 as part of the Stolen from a Hockey Card event.