"CHINOOK WALTZ" Album Reviews
AMERICANA UK Magazine
An engaging, soothing, and impressive album from Canadian roots duo Over The Moon.
Renowned multi-instrumentalists and singers Suzanne Levesque and Craig Bignell have long been known as session and touring musicians for other artists. Levesque began performing at a young age with her family’s group, singing and playing bass guitar and double bass, and later worked with The Traveling Mabels, Gord Bamford’s backing band, and many other artists. Bignell made his name as a session drummer and picked up guitar and banjo quickly as an adult. As the Canadian acoustic roots/swing duo Over The Moon, they have created two fine albums of folk, country, Appalachian old-time, and western swing. ‘Chinook Waltz’ has a good balance of terrific covers and well-written original songs.
The name Chinook refers both to the Chinook First Nation, made up of five Chinookan-speaking tribes in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and also to the name of a warm, dry wind that descends the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The couple lives on an idyllic-sounding ranch in southern Alberta in the foothills of the Rockies. This rural domestic bliss, close proximity to nature, and the appreciation of simple pleasures is evocatively described on the album’s closing title track: “The first fire of the season, in the old wood stove / Warms you like a mother’s love / You’re glad for the cold.”
Levesque and Bignell are accomplished collaborators whose blended voices are truly exceptional. The opening track ‘Lonesome Bluebird’ features the sound of an 1898 English open back banjo given to them by a friend. Bignell says in the liner notes: “After having it totally refurbished, I tuned it, but not up to pitch, and started playing the little riff you hear on this song. I thought it sounded like a bird singing away on a spring morning. Suzanne was working on some lyrics at the same time, about a girl that was missing many of life’s opportunities because she was too afraid to just get out there and do it. Suzanne likened her to a bluebird that just sat high in her tree every day looking beautiful but never learned to fly.”
They have a deep respect for the history of their home province, which was evident on their debut album ‘Moondancer,’ and here they honor a former slave who became a pioneering Albertan cowboy on ‘John Ware.’ Even with such deep Canadian roots, they convincingly cover The Everly Brothers’ love song to The Bluegrass State, ‘Kentucky.’ ‘Someday Soon,’ sung by Levesque, has the same subject and sweet story line as Trisha Yearwood’s early hit ‘She’s in Love with the Boy’ and is carried by Levesque’s rich alto voice. It was written by Canadian music titan — and the duo’s neighbor — Ian Tyson. Tyson, as one half of the famous Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia, recorded the great ’60s Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell folk ballad ‘Darcy Farrow,’ which is also beautifully covered on ‘Chinook Waltz.’ The classic ballad about ill-starred young lovers in Nevada was later a hit for John Denver. Levesque also shines on ‘I Can’t Get Over You,’ with a powerful, simple acoustic backing. Originally performed by Buddy and Julie Miller, this one could easily have been arranged as an overproduced country-pop song.
‘They Can’t Black Out the Moon’ is a popular UK song from 1939 about the wartime blackouts, imagined here as a jaunty western swing tune, with the duo envisioning a cowboy serviceman from Alberta falling in love with an English girl during a blackout. They seem to genuinely enjoy singing together in general, but most definitely on this song. Their affectionate interplay is also a highlight of the tongue-in-cheek ‘I’m Not Cool,’ a deliberately uncool swing song sung by Bignell.
Levesque and Bignell are joined by talented musicians such as Roly Platt on harmonica, Bruce Hoffman on Dobro, Joshua Baca on Tejano accordion, and Keith Floen on piano, but their velvety harmonies stand out on every song, creating a mood of serenity and happiness. The album even ends with the ASMR-worthy, cozy sound of a crackling campfire and crickets singing in the background.
FATEA Magazine UK
Over The Moon, Suzanne Levesque and Craig Bignell, play a smooth blend of roots music tempered with Western Swing. This is no dude ranch Country, written and recorded in hipster coffee fuelled urban sterility, Over The Moon live, write and record in the foothills of Alberta's Rocky Mountains. The title track starts and ends with cicada ambience and the crack of a fire. It's a love song for Chinook Ranch, Over The Moon's physical and spiritual home, delivered by Suzanne and Craig with honest affection and emotion. The band romps gently while the duo vamp about perfect isolation. "Lonesome Bluebird"the album with Craig's languid, seductive antique English banjo and Suzanne's warm but effortless vocal. This is a musical warm hug or slow dance. "Someday Soon" is a smooth romping version of Ian Tyson's song. Suzanne's vocal and the accordion, pedal steel and shuffle drums give a Tex Mex feel to the tale.
"Kentucky" is a charming version of the Karl Davis song made famous by The Everly Brothers. The duo's vocal line respectfully follows the brothers', with Roly Platt's superb harmonica and Bruce Hoffmann's Dobro adding shine and polish. The production on Chinook Waltz keeps everything nice and sparce so the clarinet on "The Can't Blackout The Moon" a 1939 song of wartime love just shines through. Harry Roy's Big Band original is a very English tea dance of a song, you can hear the fixed smiles, Over The Moon adds some Bob Wills warmth, twang and a lot of love.
The duo's version of Buddy Miller's "I Can't Get Over You" is an absolute classic in terms of restraint and atmosphere. Suzanne's vocal for the first few seconds has a touch of Rod Stewart circa "I Don't Wanna Talk About It", while the hesitant piano, borderland Tejano Accordion and guitar are just tip it into perfection. "John Ware" is a romping tale of a larger than life Alberta character, Craig and Chad Irschick double up on infectious percussion behind a joyful vocal from Suzanne. "I'm Not Cool" is a self depricating dry Country classic tale, Craig veers between a wonderfully retro croon and talking blues. The clarinet and accordion swing while the Lap Steel is pure Hank Williams.
"Darcy Farrow" was learnt off an old Ian and Sylvia Tyson album, but the Over The Moon rich guitars and bowed bass take it somewhere else, while the charming harmonies suggest the duo have listened to Iain Matthew's Southern Comfort's version. Either way it's a delight. "When She Rides" is a superb duo song that explores the bond between a woman and a horse. It's another divine arrangement moving from sparkling expansive piano and guitar harmonics to fiddle and romping drums with Suzanne's voice rich and resonant like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Craig harmonising.
In their sleeve notes Craig and Suzanne sound almost apologetic about the couple of crazy years since their debut. Impeccably packaged with Laura Nelson's Painting and Lino Print, sounding like a million Canadian dollars thanks to Chad Irschick's mixing and Craig's production this is a delightful set of postcards from Chinook Ranch. If like me you loved the duo's first album then this is, going to floor you, if you didn't hear it then you have some catching up to do.
GREAT DARK WONDER
I'll preface this review by going out on a limb here, because I have zero empirical evidence to support my claim, but I firmly believe that within the music sphere, the largest concentration of duos (per capita) can be found within the folk-roots and country music genres. There are so many pairings out there making great music right now that I very quickly exceed my number of fingers and thumbs for keeping count. Go ahead and list a few folk-roots or country duos of your own, and then take another look to see how many of your choices happen to be more than just musical companions, but bound by marriage or other loving, domestic partnerships too. I always expect to hear responses such as George & Tammy, Tim & Faith, and naturally, Ian & Sylvia, but pose the question to me right now to name such a duo, the words Craig & Suzanne are pretty much guaranteed to fly from my tongue.
We first encountered the music of Craig Bignell and Suzanne Levesque – performing collectively as Over The Moon – following the release of their debut “Moondancer” album back in 2017. Mixing their own original material with a handful of traditional covers, this duo impressed with dual harmonies and tight instrumentation wrapped and delivered in a wonderful folk and swing sound and style. How impressed, I hear you ask? Well, the following summer, we took a spontaneous road trip to see Over The Moon perform an opening set in northeastern Toronto – a rare opportunity to catch them during a brief stop here in the east – which now rates up there as one of the finest musical adventures we have had. Craig and Suzanne light up any room, yet it is their natural charm and charisma off-stage too that draws you to them; their welcoming and generous personalities shining through like those of long, lost friends.
Like many of their contemporaries, Craig and Suzanne found themselves navigating unchartered waters when returning to the studio – thanks to a global pandemic – but also like many, took time to deal with the blow, and persevered with their plans. The delayed arrival of their sophomore album, “Chinook Waltz,” released on October 29th was inevitable, but as anticipated, proves to be totally worth the wait. Recorded and produced at their home studio in Longview, AB, with mastering/mixing handled by Chad Irschick (Diana Panton, Susan Aglukark) at Inception Sound Studios in Toronto, Over The Moon delight us all once more with another perfect offering of covers and original pieces.
The album opens with “Lonesome Bluebird,” a soothing, sweet-but-sad melodic waltz, and the first of the new compositions from this husband and wife. “A friend of ours gave us an old open back banjo that was made in England in 1898,” Craig shares in the liner notes. “After having it totally refurbished, I tuned it, but not up to pitch, and started playing the little riff you here on this song. I thought it sounded like a bird singing away on a spring morning.” With some nice
touches on fiddle from Bruce Hoffman, the lead vocal duties are handled by Suzanne here: “She groomed her brilliant feathers clean and everyone could see / She’s as perfect as a picture sitting high up in the tree / If she’d only take a chance, then she’d be flying free / Lonesome bluebird.” Expect goosebumps to form during this verse, courtesy of the brief yet noticeable rise in pitch from Suzanne as she delivers that last full line.
It was during our live encounter with Over The Moon that I recall hearing Craig talk about being neighbors (mentioned in the “Chinook Waltz” liner notes too) with iconic singer-songwriter Ian Tyson, of Ian and Sylvia fame, who coincidentally provided the title track to their debut album. The duo opts to cover Tyson’s “Someday Soon” this time around, itself recorded by many artists over the years from Judy Collins to Tanya Tucker, and first brought to my attention by Suzy Bogguss in the early 90s. Craig and Suzanne pledge to always include a Tyson composition in every album they’ll record, but with such a vast catalog of tunes to choose from, just how did they arrive at this one? “We were backing up a singer a while back and he asked Suzanne to sing Someday Soon,” Craig offers. “When she started singing, I looked back at the steel player and he was leaning back on his amp, arms crossed, eyes shut, with an ear-to-ear grin. We knew right then that this should be the one.”
Always respectful to the heritage and traditions of the timeless music they share, when it comes to their interpretation of western swing, as found here with “They Can’t Blackout The Moon,” you’ll quickly appreciate the talents of this duo in not only performing, but sourcing their material. “This song was written in England around 1939 [by Harry Roy],” states Craig. “It’s about being in love during the war when they had blackouts so enemy bombers could not see where to drop their bombs.” Craig and Suzanne combine harmonies perfectly here to share the vocals throughout, accentuated by both Cedric Blary’s clarinet and Burke Carroll’s lap steel that capture that feel-good swing vibe – this one would be equally at home on a champagne-soaked Lawrence Welk show as it is here on this album. “This presented a big problem for young lovers, but on full moon nights they could still go out walking with their sweethearts, as they couldn’t blackout the moon,” Craig adds. “We took the big band swing version, and tried to make it more cowboy swing. Just imagine a 1939 Alberta cowboy serving in England and falling in love with a beautiful English girl.”
The western swing returns during “I’m Not Cool,” a fun, tongue-in-cheek original composition that once again utilizes the clarinet and lap steel combination to absolute perfection. With lead vocals handled by Craig, the fun-loving personalities of this duo leap from your speakers and directly into your listening environment. “Most of my friends in the music biz, just seem to have this thing / When they walk in the room / Every head turns like a bell started to ring / Then I walk in unnoticed and walk out the same way / Like the invisible man in his birthday suit, no-one looks my way.” The inclusion of Denis Keldie’s accordion adds extra depth as the tune progresses, as does a well-timed door slam from Chad as Craig jests: “Well, that was cool. Well, how do you like me now Sue? Sue?”
This place where the Albertan mountains meet the prairies is where the duo call home, and images of open pastures and ranch living seep naturally into Craig and Suzanne’s writing. “When She Rides” is a simple tale of the bond between a girl and her horse. “Seasons change, people change their minds / Promises get broken, love gets left behind / She is a strong one, but sometimes she needs to cry / She saddles up her horse and starts to ride.” Sung beautifully by Suzanne, this tale is further brought to life by Keith Floen’s piano strokes and Bruce Hoffman’s fiddle. “Girls and horses – the bond between some of them never ceases to amaze us,” shares Craig, whose contribution on drums recreates the simple galloping of hooves out on the plains. “When life get rough, they have each other.” “When she rides, the hurt insides / Fades with every mile behind her, a thousand tear drops fly / That horse he knows, she needs him so / She loves the world around her when she rides.”
The soothing sounds of crickets lead into the title track, “Chinook Waltz,” a composition in which Craig and Suzanne seek to share with us all insights of their Albertan ranch lifestyle. Both acoustic guitar and pedal steel open, setting the pace for this friendly and romantic waltz, where both Craig and Suzanne split the lead duties. “It’s the snow on the mountains, the wild Alberta skies / The face of a newborn calf, the look in her eyes / It’s these simple pleasures, that I hold so dear / Like singing a song, that no one can hear / Here, in this life I have found/ Oh, here, in this life we have found.” Not only does this waltz provide the perfect opportunity to slow-dance with a loved one, it also fosters strong desires to temporarily bid farewell to the urban jungle and escape to their little piece of paradise too. “Words can’t do it justice,” Craig adds. “But maybe the feeling in this song might give you a glimpse…”
One of the album highlights, for me (based on an undisclosed number of times I hit repeat), is their interpretation of the Buddy & Julie Miller tune, “I Can’t Get Over You.” “I’ve been trying for a long, long time / But no matter what I do / When I turn to leave, my heart stays behind / Cause I can’t get over you.” Paced deliberately slow for maximum impact, Suzanne once again handles the lead vocal duties, with Craig adding his touches exactly where you’d hope to hear them. Aaron Young’s nylon stringed guitar is perfectly suited to dictate the pace, while the surprise inclusion of Tejano accordion from GRAMMY winning musician Joshua Baca provides the emotive element. “I have watched as colors faded in the sun / The color of my love stays true / I’ve been letting go now, I’m not holding on / I just can’t get over you / I just can’t get over you.” Bliss, pure bliss.
“Chinook Waltz” is a stunning sophomore album that builds both naturally and beautifully on their 2017 debut. With a clear evolution in the growth of their sound, Craig and Suzanne once again respect the traditions and structures of the folk and swing genres. We find ourselves in a fast-paced and frenetic world right now, where negative energy leaves us unable to find composure, unable to breathe calmly. Over The Moon provide a lifeline here for us all – offering a musical haven where we can ground ourselves, raise our spirits, and cleanse our souls. This is timeless music that all audiences can appreciate, and is an easy lock for my year-end album honors. Available via Borealis Records, and across most major digital platforms, “Chinook Waltz” could easily be one of the best 40 minutes of music entertainment you’ll hear this year.
ALAN CACKETT UK
Canadian duo Over The Moon, comprising husband-and-wife couple Craig Bignell and Suzanne Levesque, have a unique, harmonious charm on their second album. It becomes very clear at the outset that the pair have no interest in pushing the parameters. Their homespun harmonies and breezy homilies make it clear that they’re content to confine themselves to rootsy traditional trappings and recreating a sound of a distinctly vintage variety. As a result, they convey an honesty and integrity that meshes well with their gentle yet jubilant sound. The arrangements on this home-recorded album are so assured and in sync as to offer the impression that this is a large studio offering. Both are strong vocalists and instrumentalists, with assistance from a forceful ensemble of vastly experienced pickers. To their credit, the duo makes no distinction between the classic and modern, applying the sound with a clear consistency that remains in effect overall. Don’t be deceived by the apparent simplicity. Though it can be tagged a traditional-sounding project, a simple label doesn’t do justice to the subtleties of CHINOOK WALTZ. Indeed, these duets and ballads make an indelible impression.
The couple live in the rugged foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains surrounded by a beautiful and captivating landscape on their own Chinook Ranch. That landscape infiltrates each and every musical note and lyrical word that is to be heard on this collection of carefully chosen covers and self-penned songs. Opening track Lonesome Bluebird sets the tone with its casual sway of fiddle, the pluck of banjo, mandolin and high-string guitar. Suzanne takes the lead on a song about being brave enough to fly, so as to experience freedom and the world at large. It is an absolute gem and a fresh breath of country air. Living next door to Canadian legend Ian Tyson, makes it almost inevitable that they would love his music, and it doesn’t come much better than the perennial favourite Someday Soon. The duo’s rendition is impassioned featuring elegant vocals, some equally lovely pedal steel courtesy of Bruce Hoffman and subtle accordion from Denis Keldie. They follow that with a revival of Karl & Harty’s exquisite Kentucky. First made popular in the 1930s, this plaintive song about missing the homeplace was revived by the Everly Brothers in 1958 and Gail Davies in 1982. The vocals of Craig and Suzanne wash over the listener, purifying with the clarity of their harmonies as the acoustic guitar, Dobro, harmonica and piano flow smoothly. This is music as pure and crisp as a still, chilly pond.
They maintain the revival of golden oldies with the Ian & Sylvia signature chestnut, Darcy Farrow, recasting it with a surprisingly new and unexpected interpretation. Bruce Hoffman’s fiddle gives the song an eerie, haunting feel, the pair’s softly sung vocal full of emotion in this sad tale of an ill-fated young couple. A most unusual choice is They Can’t Black Out The Moon, a song written by British dance-band leader Harry Roy in the early days of the Second World War. Given a swinging, jingle-jangle western arrangement just right for a cowboy dance night, you’ll be hypnotised and tapping your foot along in no time to this delightful romantic tune about love in the blackout days of the War. They keep to the cowboy theme with their self-penned John Ware, the story of a real-life slave from the Carolinas who became a cowboy hero in Alberta. Powered by the sound of a barroom country band, they venture into shades of classic country with pedal steel, fiddle, guitars and accordion as the tale unfurls. The title song introduces the pair’s sweeping central themes of life on their ranch in the foothills within the confines of a cozy waltz. They connect their instrumental acumen with lyrics that veer from panoramic to devotion, resulting in a sound that’s stirred with relevance, reflection, and absolute intent. The track provides an enchanting close to a record full of enchanting performances and songcraft.