Published Jan 13, 2021Ontario folk veterans Grievous Angels are back with new material after a seven-year-long hiatus, attributed to the fact that the band's principal songwriter, Charlie Angus, has a day job as the NDP MP for the Timmins—James Bay riding. Summer Before the Storm confirms that Angus' songwriting remains potent.
The material poetically covers both the personal and the political. On the tale of a love lost, "A House Where Love Died," Angus and co-vocalist Janet Mercier trade lines, adding poignancy to the lyrics: "We had a mansion we never realized, now it's the house where our love died." Angus is no vocal stylist, but his voice has a ruggedly honest feel; it is complimented here by Mercier's sweeter vocals, with the pair often swapping verses and harmonizing.
Skydiggers vocalist Andy Maize adds range on a handful of songs. His contributions are especially effective on "Fields of Normandy" — a poignant tribute to Canadian vets — as well as the jaunty "Red Deer to Margaree." Given the demands of Angus' MP job, it is no surprise that themes of travel recur here, as on "Mile Outside of Kirkland." The most lyrically compelling number is "All Night Depanneur," a portrait of a veteran with PTSD who, while buying beer in Hull, has a flashback to a former hell: "When I see the snow, I see Sarajevo and that village burning by the road."
The masterful collection closes with the title song. Atmospheric strings add to the apocalyptic feel of the lyrics, but there is a beacon of light in the distance – "a baby being born, for tomorrow comes from today." This serves as a bookend to the opening tune, "The Morning After," a spirited folk-rock romp with an optimistic tone.
Eight of the 10 songs song are sole Angus compositions. "Running Back to You" is a co-write with one-time L'Étranger bandmate and former NDP MP Andrew Cash, while "Iron Working Man" was written but never recorded by late Newfoundland folk legend Ron Hynes — he'd surely be thrilled at this rousing version that has a singalong quality perfect for a picket line.
Musically, the group is certainly not reinventing the wheel, but there is something refreshing about their old-school folk approach. When was the last time you heard harmonica solos? They come courtesy of original member Peter Jellard, whose potent contributions on accordion and fiddle have long been a core component of the Grievous Angels' sound. Guest players on trumpet and keyboards add a crisp texture, while the joint production of Angus, Tim Hadley and Nicolas Tjelios is sharp and uncluttered.
Back in the early '90s, Grievous Angels earned two Juno Award nominations. Summer Before the Storm merits similar consideration. (Jimmy Boyle Records)