LFL's record is entitled Be A Light, a line taken from the cornerstone "Frozen Lake" track:
Maybe I'm a foolish man
Oh my honey, I'm a wrecking ball
But if I hold you just because I can
Would you be a light, and shine me home?
And that is the theme of this record. Loneliness, longing, a desire for connection, LFL puts us in the face of life's challenges - physical and spiritual - and tells us we must work our asses off to get through this. Be a light, honey. It certainly was not a surprise when I learned that this was recorded in a 100 year old church on Manitoulin Island, an island known for its otherworldliness: spirits haunt this record.
Musically LFL's touchstones are pure, traditional folk Canadiana - Neil Young, Blue Rodeo, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, even Leonard Cohen. But this is not to say that the music is derivative. Not in the least! LFL offers a unique, mellow guitar sound, interspersed with jabs of distorted guitar, train-a-comin' beats, all carried by Rendell's smooth, fine falsetto voice. These are not songs to listen to while driving in the car, or enjoying food with friends; instead, they are meant to be savoured - like food itself, with all the life affirming qualities and subtle textures that the best foods offer.
Be A Light starts with "Watch the Weeds", a standout opening track which sets up the record's themes clearly:
Oh, my heart was thundering out of my chest
In the dead of night, I was a mess
Loneliness had reared its ugly head.
Softly picked guitar opens up with Rendell's voice soaring above. Bass kicks in with some percussion - a gentle tapping of drumsticks, the pace picks up - and then eventually there is the flourish of Rendell's voice and guitar - and a bitter refrain:
It's only when I'm losing love
I'm choosing to sit and wonder
The north is obviously in Rendell's blood. Listening to this closely, I was amazed by the number of references to the Canadian terroir. Seasons. Bodies of Water. Snow. Roads. "Before the Frost" starts with upbeat guitar strumming, a song of longing, which beautifully underscores how we all suffer these feelings together, even if we do not know it: a sing-a-long chorus features vocal layers which could be any one of us:
Now I'm gone, forever lost
You got cold, I hit the road
In search of warmth
But was it worth the cost
To feel some warmth
Before the frost
"Sleepwreck" starts as a gentle folk tune, but slowly builds to the sad refrain: "Every shore is a rocky one, when you're far from home". Rendell is brilliant here: sharp guitar hooks, and hard vocal emphasis, hammer home the subtle anger in the song. Like most songs on this record, close listening pays dividends.
"Dressed In White" was the track that truly hooked me. Cheery guitar starts the song, with amplified chords interspersed, cutting through like scalpels:
I never left, I just stayed home again
Did the dishes, studied every floor you ever swept
I saved a breath of the cold Northern air
In my lungs, so I can breathe
When I'm in distress
"Flin Flon" masterfully reflects the ambiguity of that funny town name. What is Flin Flon anyway? Rendell uses the town as a metaphor for moral ambiguity - as in flip flop maybe? The song features gentle singing and strumming to harsh guitar strikes:
Oh, goodnight to what is right
Morals left and oh, they turned out all the lights
And left me in the dark
That's it, I am going up to Flin Flon
To detox from my pit of black despair
If I bury myself deep in Manitoba
Not even my own ghost could find me there
But when that warm wind wraps its arms around me
My darkness renders it a bitter breeze
I guess it sticks in your spine like some toxic pleasure
When you've been that deep in muddy misery
If these tracks reflect the emotional difficulties of the Canadian landscape we all endure, "Frozen Lake" is the Canadian Shield of the record. Rendell almost seems to find strength on the solidness of a Frozen Lake, perhaps because there is no more ambiguity to the water. All is calm. Pretty strumming anchors Rendell's lovely voice, with harmonica evoking Mr. Young no doubt, but in the most blue skied prairie landscape way possible. Lost. " Be a light and shine me home..." and the guitar kicks in like a hammer. You need to work at this.
"Fully Awake" further explores the yin yang of inner emotion and outer landscape. Storms are on the bay and in your head. How would you deal with this?
I've got a friend out on the rez
Where they're stitching hearts up with bitter thread
And I'm afraid for her safety
And I'm afraid, for I'm not fully awake
"Fully awake" resonates with a guitar solo and harsh guitar rhythms, reaching out from sleep - or some other consciousness....
The longest track on the record, "Waiting on the Tide", tells a long, difficult story. This is where Rendell's metaphorical storytelling shines. The song speaks of hopes and dreams - frontier towns reached only by rail, dreams of riches and more, a cheap buzz, a quick buck - and then devastation:
The men who built this place, diamonds singing in their eyes
Under starry skies
Never lived to see the coal chute choked by weeds and rust
And the clouds of dust
A hint of misery hanging in the atmosphere
Like a cheap veneer
A thousand suns will set in the mind of every man
And his master plan
The picture frames come down off the walls
Who do we look to now?
Rendell describes the deterioration of hopeful towns in beautiful prose and metaphor. This is gorgeous art, documenting difficult times with grace and humility. Rendell's voice here is perfect for the moment - a soft lilt, a precious hope, a precarious life. Rendell knows his Canadian roots as well: this track references Lightfoot's lyric about the trains running on time in Hornepayne.
"Sparrow Heart" comes closest to a conventional singer-songwriter track. Love. Fear. Anticipation. Anxiety. This is Old Ways era Young in many ways - musically for sure - but lyrically Rendell reflects the maturity of an ancient songwriter:
Hey, cage your little sparrow heart
So it won't be torn apart
When you see my scars
Hey, can't you see the warning signs?
I'm just a flawed design
Pay me no mind
It's gonna be the gut-wrenching tale of you and I inside the whale.
Be A Light ends with a short song, simple guitar, Rendell's falsetto voice. But this one is like an atom bomb - all energy and emotion compressed into a short minute and a bit. This is the flag of this record: life is simple, yet complicated, joyful yet sad, light yet dark. In four lines, Rendell sums this all up, in one gorgeous little lyric:
Hide your heart from me
Don't speak, just choose the side you're on
Because I sing my songs
To the sound of the dark
Be A Light is alternatively beautiful and scary, hopeful and sad, subtle and brash, light and dark. But in the struggle between these opposites, Rendell doesn't just ask for a positive approach. He demands it: Be A Light. These songs are thoughtful and challenging, to the brain, the heart and the ears. Listen closely to this record and discover our hidden landscapes. Better yet, see LFL live - where the challenge of Rendell's music can be fully exposed and explored.
I hesitate to tell you this, but you can get Be a Light as a free download right here at LFL's website. Please do so, and enjoy this magnificent record. But if you do enjoy, go to the shows, buy some merch., and give it away. You know great Canadian music deserves this.