Reviews of River Song
Dirty Linen, June-July 2006
"Canadian trio Tod Gorr, Ellen Shizgal and Dave Clarke, along with their friend lyricist Lucinda Chodan, have come up with 14 original songs that remind the listener of the strength and beauty found in simplicity. Most are inspired by landscapes of their native Canada, and, because they are travelling musicians, some of the songs deal with travelling and being away from loved ones. Not an outworn phrase or the hint of a cliche in the batch, though, and that's saying something for writers in any genre; as Steel Rail works in the country/bluegrass/old-time world, there is certainly the temptation to fall back on the tried and true. Tried and true emotion, yes, that's what makes these songs resonate as they find fresh ways to express universal truths.
"Outstanding cuts include the waltz-time tribute to Shizgal's parents, Still Keeping Time; the vividly imagined details setting off bittersweet memories in Somewhere Else Tonight; and Big Sky Blues, a yearning for the prairies of Alberta that proves that blues do not have to be set to blue and sad music."
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Bluegrass Unlimited, May 2006
"Canada's Steel Rail is a trio with two personalities, and their River Song CD explores that duality. On the one hand, they're a fresh, contemporary bluegrass band with solid yet reflective instrumentation and tight, sweet harmonies. Listen to the perky Big Sky Blues as it opens the album, the up-tempo Let It Rain with its spirited, soaring harmonies that revel in the joyous, life-giving properties of prairie rain, or the optimistically bouncy Goodbye Again. On the other hand, they also take a quieter, singer/songwriter approach to their music, with Jim Croce-like vocals and much softer, less ornate arrangements, as in the poignant That's How The Summer Slips Away or the guitar-and-vocal tune, Cool, Cool Walls. And then there are the tracks that seem to combine the best of both worlds, such as Somewhere Else Tonight, a quiet tune with mellow guitar, fiddle, and mandolin threads, as well as pastel-colored harmonies.
"To be sure, River Song is a gentler kind of bluegrass. Most of the tracks have a slower to moderate pace, allowing for thoughtful reflection on the lyrics (provided in the liner notes. These are songs that tell small stories with strong, personal images: snow angels, shuttered windows, a weary hand, ghosts that walk the city, waltzing in the kitchen. Bandmembers Ted Garr (rhythm guitar), Ellen Shizgal (bass), and Dave Clarke (fingerstyle and lead guitar) have no doubt taken a more folk-like approach to bluegrass due to the absence of other lead instruments in their core band, yet for River Song they've enlisted the aid of Gaston Bernard on mandolin, Geoff Somers on fiddle, and Rick Haworth on resonator guitar, thereby giving the album more depth and texture. Fans of hard-core bluegrass won't think it's enough, but those who enjoy more relaxing music should find it an engaging and delightful album."
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Sing Out, Spring, 2006
"Like their first two, River Song, Steel Rail's third album, is rooted almost equally in acoustic country music, bluegrass and folk and it's their best effort yet the first two CDs were both very good, as well). The trio features vocalist and rhythm guitarist Tod Gorr, who has one of the most naturally country voices north of George Jones, lead guitarist Dave Clarke, long one of Canada's most fluid acoustic pickers, and bassist Ellen Shizgal, who provides the band's heartbeat, some gorgeous harmonies and two lead vocals.
"What particularly distinguishes Steel Rail is the fine craftsmanship of their songwriting. It must be noted that much of the writing responsibility belongs to Steel Rail's 'fourth member': lyricist Lucinda Chodan, Dave's wife whose day job is editing a daily newspaper in Victoria, B.C. Lucinda wrote the lyrics to 11 of the 14 songs, 10 in collaboration with Dave and one with Tod. Tod wrote another of the songs and Ellen contributed a pair.
"Many of these songs vividly recreate specific locales and times. In the lovely That's How the Summer Slips Away, we can feel the change of seasons along the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec while in Big Sky Blues we're looking at the harbor on a rainy Vancouver day recalling and longing for the sunshine of a prairie summer. Wooden Ships captures the passing centuries at the legendary salor's church in Old Montreal (the same church that inspired scenes in Leonard Cohen's Suzanne) and Belmont Days nostalgically recreates happy childhood memories of a long-defunct Montreal amusement park.
"While Tod sings most of the lead vocals, the spotlight falls on Ellen on a couple of songs including Tread Softly, a very poignant song she wrote about the moment of death of a loved one."
- Mike Regenstrief
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Penguin Eggs, Spring, 2006 (excerpt from feature)
"The new disc continues the band’s musical journey both figuratively and literally. It’s as if the St. Lawrence River and its flowing waters is a metaphor for Steel Rail’s meandering musical career. Upon a first listen, one is immediately drawn to the beauty of the lyrics and to the sense of the land that permeates the record: from the rollicking Quebec countryside (That’s How the Summer Slips Away) to the endless Prairies (Let it Rain), to relics of Montreal’s past (Belmont Days). This land as inspiration is nothing new for this talented trio."
- David McPherson
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Vancouver Province, December 6, 2005
"Following guitarist Dave Clarke's move with songwriter Lucinda Chodan to Victoria, Montreal's Steel Rail is now cross-continental with Tod Gorr and Ellen Shizgal still in the snowdrifts. River Song is a fiery Canadian bluegrass joy retaining plenty of Quebecois references." B+
- John P. McLaughlin
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Ottawa Citizen, October 8, 2005
"Five years is too long between releases from this Montreal-based folk/bluegrass/country trio, but patience has its rewards. River Song - Steel Rail's third album to date - sparkles with the group's distinctive voice, including Dave Clarke's acoustic guitar picking (warm and tasteful as always), Tod Gorr's lead vocals (Gorr seems to have found a new and richer and lower register this time around), and Ellen Shizgal's subtle bass lines (she also takes two fine turns as lead singer).Tying together Steel Rail's evocative songs of love, long-vanished youth and the ceaseless turn of the seasons are cordial three-part harmonies and clean, bright arrangements." (**** out of five)
- Patrick Langston
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Montreal Gazette, October 6, 2005
"This third album by Steel Rail, rooted almost equally in country, bluegrass and folk music, is their best effort yet. The trio’s ensemble sound features vocalist and rhythm guitarist Tod Gorr, who has one of the most naturally country voices this side of George Jones, lead guitarist Dave Clarke, one of the most fluid acoustic pickers in the country, and bassist Ellen Shizgal, who provides the band’s heartbeat, some gorgeous harmonies and two lead vocals. Steel Rail’s secret weapon, though, is the fine craftsmanship of their songwriting. Songs of love and loss mix with pieces that nostalgically recall Belmont Park or that conjure images of the sailor’s church in Old Montreal, the Quebec countryside, beautiful prairie skies and the tough streets of downtown Winnipeg." (**** out of five)
- Michael Regenstreif