Saul Redhill is a Toronto-based singer/songwriter who has just released the stunning New Jerusalem, his first release since 2014. Raised in a musical home (his father was a violinist and his sisters played piano and cello), Redhill started on violin at age seven in various youth orchestras, finally winding up at a high school for the Arts where he played bass in jazz-rock trios. He put out an EP by his band Lyra in 2011, then released his highly acclaimed Wakeup Shot EP in 2014, wherein he played everything but drums. New Jerusalem was recorded and mixed with Ableton Live in Toronto, and was also mastered in Toronto by Joao Carvalho.
Redhill’s voice reminds me of Bob Dylan during his “Lay Lady Lay” period, and while not classically “pretty,” his singing grew on me as the album progressed. There are also occasional touches of Elvis, but without the flamboyance; in fact, he performs his vocal duties somewhat tentatively, almost dropping the final words of each verse.
But it’s the songs themselves that are most interesting. His arrangements, while very different, reminded me of songwriter-arranger Van Dyke Parks, who can always be counted on to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Redhill’s songs are constantly surprising, both in the progression of his melodies and the instrumentation, which is wonderfully diverse. He generally begins a song with just his voice and guitar, taking his time to set the mood, and only when he’s good and ready do the drums and other instruments appear, and sometimes just for a short while. Rhythmically there are a lot of sneaky dropped beats. He also leaves plenty of “air” in his recordings, and has created some incredible stereo imaging as well.
In Biblical terms, The New Jerusalem refers to the Jewish mystical understanding of Heaven. This album certainly deals in spiritual themes but without being obvious or didactic, and what I heard were songs about relationships with both other people and a higher power.
“To Catch A Lizard” is a slow jazz-funk-classical hybrid that starts with a single guitar chord quietly strummed as Redhill sings theatrically: “When I was a boy, I asked God, help me to catch a lizard / Who heard me? / Now I find everything is cyclical, except love / Just when you’re at the peak / Comes the lightening from above.” As the song progresses, there are Gabriel-like trumpets by Tom Upjohn, and drums by Ian Wright. Redhill begins feathering in little bits of all his other instruments, and to call him a multi-instrumentalist doesn’t quite catch it. Here and elsewhere he plays guitars, piano, bass, violin, viola, mellotron, harmonium, synths, harmonica, drums and percussion… in other words, he could probably replace ALL the Beatles!
“Orion” follows much the same pattern, like a slow-jazz show tune. The middle section is wonderful, as the tempo kicks in VERY SLOWLY with expansive violins and keyboards, like the vistas in a widescreen epic. At one point the percussion mimics a train crossing bell.
“Elegy” introduces strummed acoustic guitar cradling Redhill’s long drawn-out syllables, with Clarrie Feinstein’s backing vocals. After two minutes the drums kick in with a very slow rock tempo. The acoustic guitar stops and starts as crystalline electric and slide guitars pop in and around the stereo field.
“New Jerusalem” begins with the lyric structure of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” (“I Will Never Play You / Into my arms betray you / erase or rename you”). This is a simpler song with mostly just quiet guitar licks with Redhill’s lead vocals, angelic background singing and more of Tom Upjohn’s wonderful trumpets. “In Ashes” feels almost like a traditional folk country tune that Glen Campbell might perform with maybe an echo of “Stand By Your Man.” This track also includes both a Fender Rhodes keyboard and a Mellotron, that wonderful pre-digital sampler we’ve heard in songs by the Beatles, The Moody Blues and many others. Some of the strongest Biblical imagery yet: “The sword is unforgiving, so accept that it will slay / Each day there are these moments, in time they all decay / When she accepts my fading wish, I know what she will say / I love you, and like the burning bush, in ashes we will lay.”
“Badlands” begins with muted strumming as a wall of instruments slowly fade in, before suddenly cutting off. Redhill’s vocals are matter-of-fact against a background of beautifully recorded acoustic piano, harmonica and electric guitar. Toward the end things get a little crazy and I thought maybe my computer was playing two of his songs at once. It’s a feast for the ears, with some of the most interesting mixing on the album.
“Ascension Day” again mentions The New Jerusalem, along with Jesus, the Burning Bush and Heaven. This song mostly centers on Redhill’s voice and his jazzy, slow-picked electric guitar, later joined by some beautifully-recorded bird tracks.
The album closes with two instrumentals. The first is called “At The Gates Of Hades” and features several violin and viola tracks leading to a classical guitar, slide, and a piano section that owes more than a little to Erik Satie with pleasing country overtones. The second is a short instrumental reprise of “To Catch A Lizard,” bringing us full circle.
Any time I get a great album like this, I feel like Salieri trying to explain Mozart, but I hope I’ve been able to convey just how unique and accomplished these songs are.
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