Album of the Week, July 28: Labour Day by Spirit of the West

SotWLabourDayGeoffrey Kelly, John Mann and J. Knutson  formed the band Eavesdropper in 1983. Their sound was solid folk, with acoustic instruments and original lyrics set to traditional jigs and reels.  They released two albums, signing with Stony Plain, before Knutson departed. Hugh McMillan stepped in, and the group recorded their first early success, Labour Day.

The album continues in the band’s original spirit, but shows hints of the transformation to come. Most of the music is composed by band members rather than adapted from traditional music. While it is still clearly folk music, it has more in common with the acoustic protest folk of Dick Gaughan, with just enough traditional ornamentation to reflect their roots. (Kelly’s whistle and flute are strong elements throughout the disc.) The songs explore modern travails and celebrate the human spirit.

Title Labour Day
Act Spirit of the West
Label Stony Plain Release Date August 1988
Producer Spirit of the West with Danny Greenspoon
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Darkhouse
  2. Political
  3. Profiteers
  4. The Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door
  5. Runboy
  6. Drinking Man
  7. Expensive / Cinema of Pain
  8. Gottigen Street
  9. Take It From the Source

Things kick off in high gear with Darkhouse, which is based on a traditional jig. A play on the concept of the lighthouse, the lyrics reflect the pace of change in the world and the perils of mindlessly allowing oneself to be swept away on the tide of so-called progress.

Political is one of the strongest tracks and would go on to become one of the band’s signature songs. It nicely merges the ideas of personal and electoral politics, agonizing over the disintegration of a relationship. Profiteers is a pointedly political song, looking at the arrival of the World’s Fair to Vancouver and the shameless way that greedy landlords abused their tenants to make a quick buck. The stinging indictment is perfectly delivered, presaging the band’s lyrical center on future recordings.

The Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door was written about a general election in the UK and nicely dissects the perils of party politics. Run Boy was written as two songs that merged perfectly together. A bracing song that whirls at a breakneck pace — driven by some powerful flute work — it celebrates the effort it takes for the average person to succeed in a highly politicized, corporate-owned world.

Drinking Man is a sad, beautiful song that warns against judging by appearances. The central character has a noble spirit but has been broken down by circumstance and suffers the cruel remarks of those who ignore his humanity. It’s a powerful message delivered skillfully. Expensive/Cinema of Pain was inspired by newspaper headlines about military intervention and the bloody wage it demands. Notes writer John Mann, “How do these six-shooter foreign policy makers live with their decisions? They don’t — we do.” Gottigen Street began as a poem by Kelly inspired by the band’s stay in Halifax. It turned into a song before they left Nova Scotia, a powerful ode to urban decay in lovely settings.

The album ends on another high note with Take It From the Source. Inspired by nasty comments directed by Mann in a café, it reflects on the cruelties people inflict on one another. Quiet and mournful, but ultimately uplifting, it features lovely whistle playing by Kelly as it reminds us to consider where our negative messages come from before taking them to heart. It’s a great way to wrap up this journey through inhumanity and struggle, leaving the listener with a positive message.

FURTHER LISTENING: Linda McRae joined the band for their next album, followed quickly by Vince Ditrich. The quintet took on a more aggressive, electric sound, still anchored in their folk roots but more clearly part of the growing alt-rock scene. This configuration released four albums before McRae departed. Two more discs, one featuring new band member Tobin Frank, round out their output so far. The best reflection of their new sound is Go FIgure. The band’s finest moment after Labour Day, however, is Open Heart Symphony, which finds them recording a set of great new songs live with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It’s an odd experiment that works quite well.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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