Cape Breton Island – on the eastern edge of Nova Scotia– doesn’t seem like the place one might finger for Americana country licks. It surely wouldn’t spark a bevy of old school genre hallmarks like snap-front flannels, rebel outlaws and the occasional rhinestone. Then again, open minds reap rewards. Enter Aaron MacDonald. His re-emergence following a 12-year hiatus from music is a warm, perhaps even overdue one; particularly for his true believers in the Atlantic Time Zone and anyone remotely connected to CanCon.
The aptly titled It’s Been Too Long is flush with captivating vocals. Front-and-center in the mix, MacDonald’s scraggly purr thrives in a state of analog exceptionalism. It is there, unobstructed, almost-but-not-quite reverb-ed, while complementary guitar weaves through a string of simple, yet tuneful tracks. The package is made even brighter by its impressive production values. I suppose MacDonald evoked a 1970’s comparison to distance himself, quite smartly, from the pop-heavy machinations of the CMT era. And who can blame him? Unironic mustache wax scored a hell of a lot more points in the days before hipsters used it to sell pickles and booze.
While always pleasant, the album begins on generic footing before snaking down more interesting highways. “Gonna Get There” and “Exactly” borrow from the John Mellencamp lyrical songbook. The interchangeability of the tunes hardly detracts from their structure, even if it all sounds a bit benign. By “Wait,” however, the tone changes. Not only is this a deeply emotive piece, but the atmosphere is more intimate, lending a curious fragility to MacDonald’s voice. A clever chorus, repeated only twice, sucks up whatever oxygen is left in the room, noteworthy rhyme intact: “Are we living our dream or in a time machine / Where fantasy does not apply / Are we pulling our hair / Are we already there / Have we made it barely getting by.”
“My Soul and Me” offers a down-home groove amidst peppy organ. The latter is unequivocally the most ’70s thing on the EP. When paired with restrained horns and swallowed by expectantly clean guitar, the song gels into a relic of A-side music for the local watering hole. Its follow-up, “I Do Better In The Sun” pulls from a gritty Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe, and seems to relish in its sneering, below-the-surface feel. MacDonald never lashes out – though it might’ve been interesting had he let himself go – but the music froths with an intangible aggression, prescient hand claps notwithstanding. Closing the album, “I Still Need You” is a fine nugget of the variety show era, vibing in the style of a Cash/Carter duet.
Ultimately, MacDonald is a serious artist, composing soulful, honest melodies with nary a twang (or yodel) to typecast the fun. Could a more “live” presence to these songs have boosted the energy? Maybe. MacDonald seems purposely restrained at times when he likely could’ve ripped loose. Then again, why draw a gulf between artist and listener when one can happily opt for studio intimacy? Unlike today’s factory enhanced product, the man isn’t ever singing at us. He’s the real deal.
Don’t miss this one.
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