Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort

Small Source of Comfort
True North

Listening to Small Source of Comfort, Bruce Cockburn’s compelling new album, it occurred to me that his music has been part of my life for a very long time. I think his first LP, just called Bruce Cockburn, had just been released when I saw him at the Back Door, a short-lived Montreal coffeehouse, circa 1970 or ’71. Since then, every one of his 30 other albums has been added to my collection, I’ve seen him perform many times in venues large and small, and I’ve interviewed him several times for newspapers, magazines and radio including a memorable guest spot on Folk Roots/Folk Branches and a cover feature in Sing Out! magazine.

As would be natural with an artist whose body of work is as large and as varied as Bruce’s, there are some of his albums that I’ve liked more than others. Small Source of Comfort, I’m pleased to report, quickly assumed its place among my favourites of Bruce’s albums. I’ve always preferred his more acoustic and intimate sounding records (and concerts) and that’s the mode he’s in here.

There’s a highway or travel motif to many of the songs and instrumentals – there are five instrumentals among the 14 tracks – on Small Source of Comfort borne, as Bruce notes, from frequent long distance drives between Kingston, Ontario, where he’s lived in recent years, and Brooklyn, where his girlfriend was living. Bruce “crossed the border laughing,” in the first line of the first song, “The Iris of the World,” describing an encounter with the U.S. border officials. Other highway and travel references include a woman who “strides across the blacktop” in “Radiance”; the urban traffic congestion in “Five Fifty-One”; the images reflected in the titles of “Driving Away,” one of two fine collaborations with Annabelle Chvostek, and “Lois On the Autobahn,” a nifty instrumental conversation between Bruce’s baritone guitar and Jenny Scheinman’s violin; and the scenes and signs from the road in “Boundless,” the other collaboration with Annabelle.

Among the other songs are “Call Me Rose,” in which Richard Nixon is reincarnated and rehabilitated as a poor single mother; “Called Me Back,” an hilarious blues tune about assumptions and missed communication; and “Gifts,” a lovely old song of Bruce’s that he’s never recorded until now. It’s a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on early albums like High Winds White Sky or Salt, Sun and Time.

The album’s most compelling and poignant moments are in “Each One Lost,” inspired by a ramp ceremony for two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan that Bruce observed on a trip there. It’s hard not be moved by the sincerity of the grief that Bruce expresses, as well as the critical understanding of the motivations of the soldiers who are over there. A companion instrumental, “The Comets of Kandahar,” also has much to say despite having no lyrics.

In all, Small Source of Comfort is Bruce Cockburn at his most intimate, his most musical, and his most incisive. Kudos, too, to producer Colin Linden who also contributes some fine playing on several songs.

--Mike Regenstreif

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