There must be something about discovering new vinyl releases with more than just a little retro-flair at this point in the year. Just 12 months ago, and within the context of this very feature too, I found a copy of “Roller Fink,” the debut album from ON-based quartet The Surfrajettes at my local indie record store – and upon the initial spin, was transported back to fifties era small-town America by their retro-surf sounds. Not a bad place to escape to for a while, right?
With the first spin of “Business & Pleasure,” the latest release from three-time JUNO Award nominated singer-songwriter Emm Gryner, comes a strong sense of déjà vu. Once again, another time travel adventure beckons, but we’re not dialing the decades back quite so far this time around. Emm chooses, alternatively, to whisk us back to an era where thrift stores suddenly found themselves drowning in unloved polyester clothing, while mirrored sunglass and stone-washed denims became a thing. And, of course, Grease was still the word…
As the opening bars of “Loose Wig” burst from the speakers, the ambience intensifies as the initial verse progresses, allowing Emm to specify not only the timeline she is transporting us to, but also the geographical region. “You can write about anything you want and people might actually love it. The themes don’t always have to be watered down and universal,” Emm offers. “That’s how I approached Loose Wig, which was inspired by a Rolling Stone article about Donald Fagen ‘keeping his sense of humour’ in isolation. Referencing the term Donald used to describe a political figure, it’s one of those rare songs about the pandemic that might make you laugh. I wanted to offer a feeling of grooviness amidst the helplessness.”
This first spin of “Loose Wig” delivers a distinct late 70s soft rock beat meets smooth bass lines and timely horn bursts to immediately paint a scene of SoCal sun-drenched beaches where life is much more laid back, shifting to images of patrons congregating under oversized disco-era mirror balls to dance weekends away at those west coast night clubs. Growing up in the western corner of Southern Ontario, Emm’s own childhood memories from tuning in to the Detroit radio scene, and her subsequent love affair with Yacht Rock are what influenced her approach to this latest project.
If the sweet grooves of Steely Dan and Michael McDonald rock your world, while “Loose Wig” plants the seeds for your time travel adventure, the follow-up track, “Jack” is the vessel that will take you there. “Jack Wagner’s hit song ‘All I Need’ and his love of golf inspired a meditation on how both the game and his career path as an actor and musician embrace tranquility and good vibes,” Emm shares. “I tapped into the serenity, warmth and deep focus one might have in sports or a love affair when writing [this] single.” For this particular listener, and SXM 70s-on-7 devotee, I’m immediately hearing “Magic Matt in the morning” in my head – and have to pinch myself…this IS still 2023, right? Or did I not dream going for that spin in Doc Brown’s DeLorean, ala Back to the Future?
“All we need / Is a little more Jack / Our love’s comeback / Is forever enough / All we need / Is a little more Jack / True love’s come back / And that’s always enough.” The clever use of horns further accentuates the post-disco soul vibe – Quincy Jones and George Benson fans will be in their seventh heaven right here. “I wanted a feel-good track that reminded me of the comfort of an 80s sitcom,” Emm adds. “My producer Fred Mollin saw horns on this, so we had the legendary Jim Hoke write a part that totally puts it over the top.”
When it came to turning the idea behind “Business & Pleasure” into reality, both Emm Gryner and poet/co-lyricist Michael Holmes knew deep in their hearts that Nashville-based producer Fred Mollin (Michael McDonald/Billy Joel) was THE only choice to help take that leap of faith. “What I loved about working with Fred Mollin is that he considered my demos as road maps for his own production,” Emm shared during the early stages of the project. “He really listened to ‘every’ idea.” It is hard to ignore the production quality across each and every song, wherein Mollin adds his Hollywood touch that generates the realism of this time travel adventure. Just contemplating how two songwriters from southern Ontario can create convincing sounds of Detroit and SoCal from decades past truly demonstrates Mollin’s mastery of musical illusion.
Spinning the album in full for the first time, several tracks do jump out thanks to those magical touches. The vocal harmonies and blasts of Hammond B3 during the soul-laden “Summertime,” for instance, those B3 blasts returning during the album closer, “Don’t Give In,” which offers hints of The Go-Gos – if you crave a Jane Weidlin worthy type of musical fix, here’s your chance. As for “Queen,” the track that wraps up the first side of the record, we encounter a particular genre in which Emm is more than well-versed in – the piano ballad. Blending powerful keystrokes with her emotional vocal range, this timeless number tugs easily at the heartstrings. Soul-pop vibes dominate “The Second Coming,” but the horns and discreet Caribbean undertones sent my mind into overdrive – filling the void immediately with radio-friendly tracks such as “This Is It” (Kenny Loggins) and “Loneliness Is Just A Word” (Chicago).
As the lead single pre-release from the album, “Valencia” has already earned many listens in the GDW household, yet continues to sound fresh, the early 80s synth-pop rhythm primed to get bums off seats and out onto a dance floor. Gryner accomplishes such a fear by tapping into her own authenticity and delivering such sonic escapism. “Each song has a different story,” she shares. “We are conveying the renewing feeling of the 70s and 80s, when life was not so on-demand, when musicianship and studio cats reigned supreme.” Such authenticity in sound, especially here on “Valencia,” derives from the subtle factors at play. Not indifferent to how the perfect dish requires only the finest ingredients, Emm and her supporting cast sprinkle plenty of those ‘little things’ into the mixing bowl that casual observers may simply overlook.
For the discerning listener seeking true era-appropriateness, however, it is not just Mollin’s keen ear from behind the consoles, but the track placement that ebbs and flows, the use of horns as needed (the burst of saxophone on this track is reminiscent of Glenn Frey’s solo work – remember “You Belong To The City?”), the careful layering of harmonies, and of course, Emm’s prolonged ‘hang time’ with specific vocals that were all the rage back in the day. No matter how many times I hear those cries of “Valencia,” each one becomes the audible frosting raring to sit atop a tasty looking cake – the finishing touch, le pièce de résistance, le chant du cygne.
“Business & Pleasure” is another solid offering from this Ontario artist, and not unlike her previous “Just For You” jazz album project, is born from her own instincts and gamble to follow her heart; to detach herself once again from the umbilical cord connecting her to the restrictive demands of mass-market industry norms. Who says you can’t love Yacht Rock, and more importantly, who says you cannot recreate it in the here and now? What goes around often comes back around in terms of fashion sense and popular culture, so saddle up and enjoy this brief sojourn back to a true golden age of popular music – that time before synth-pop, rock, and soul filed for musical divorce. And while we can’t physically go back in time, no matter what Hollywood tries to tell us, who says we can’t recall those moments of adolescence when life seemed much more innocent, and long before we discovered the perils and pitfalls of adulthood?
Photo Credits: Jessica Weiser Photography