There used to be a band in Whitehorse called Scotch. It was a party band, centred around brothers Ryan and Declan O’Donovan. But in the natural course of bands and families, the members moved on.
Declan now divides his time between Whitehorse and Montreal, and is about to release his self-titled solo album.
But this is not Scotch. This is a singer-songwriter’s album, a mix of blues, jazz, rock and roots music that draws inspiration from the early works of Tom Waits
O’Donovan’s voice is rough but higher than Waits’s, with less whisky and gravel, but equally distinctive.
Backed by Bruce Bergman on guitars, Robert Bergman on bass and Lonnie Powell on drums, plus a host of guest musicians, including a horn section arranged by Daniel Timmermans, O’Donovan plays all the piano and organ parts with a deceptively easy skill, highlighting the emotion in his voice.
His songwriting has been recognized and rewarded. He won the blues category of the West Coast Songwriters International Songwriting Competition for “Cheap Souvenirs”, a song featured on this CD.
It’s a song about a touring musician, missing someone, despite the excitement and beauty of a new city.
Like a camera, a cheap souvenir/
I know it all means nothing/
’cause you’re not here.
Under O’Donovan’s jazzy piano is a quavering Hammond organ and horn section lifting the song upwards, with hints of gospel.
“I Want You Close”has a 1970s funk-rock groove, with piano and organ playing off each other, supported by David Haddock’s electric bass and Powell’s drums and the horns that take over, crescendo and fade at the end.
O’Donovan’s love of Waits’s music can be felt on songs such as “Things That You Lose” and “Death of a Salesman”.
With Jesse Zubot’s plaintive, mournful Gypsy-style violin and O’Donovan’s combination of piano and organ, “Things That You Lose” is about a breakup and the parts of life that get left behind. It’s a song that could easily fit on Waits’s Foreign Affairs or Swordfishtombones albums.
With a graveyard marimba played by Andrea McColeman and sounding like skeletons dancing, “Death of a Salesman” is the story of a swindler who discovers himself in front of St. Peter, attempting to impress his way through the Pearly Gates:
This is the first party that I’ve been to/
Where I couldn’t sneak in through the back door
The salesman goes on to plead:
Let me in for a minute/
I’d like to have a word with the man upstairs.
“Where Are You” is a song of nostalgia and loss played so touchingly on solo piano that it makes you wonder how O’Donovan could have amassed the life experience in such a short time to write it.
It fades into the instrumental track, “Outro”, a quiet jam with his band, O’Donovan’s piano mixing playfully with a muted trumpet.
Although comparisons to Waits can be made, O’Donovan has a unique voice, and is emerging as an internationally-recognized songwriter and equally skilled as a musician.
O’Donovan will present his CD release concert, along with the Steve Brockley Band, at the Yukon Arts Centre on Thursday, August 9 at 8 p.m.
Outstanding Tracks: “Cheap Souvenirs” and “Death of a Salesman”.