I shall preface this review by going out on a limb here, because I have zero empirical evidence to support my claim, but I firmly believe that within the music sphere, the largest concentration of duos (per capita) can be found within the folk-roots and country music genres. There are so many pairings out there making great music right now that I very quickly exceed my number of fingers and thumbs for keeping count. Go ahead and list a few folk-roots or country duos of your own, and then take another look to see how many of your choices happen to be more than just musical companions, but bound by marriage or other loving, domestic partnerships too. I always expect to hear responses such as George & Tammy, Tim & Faith, and naturally, Ian & Sylvia, but pose the question to me right now to name such a duo, the words Craig & Suzanne are pretty much guaranteed to fly from my tongue.
We first encountered the music of Craig Bignell and Suzanne Levesque – performing collectively as Over The Moon – following the release of their debut “Moondancer” album back in 2017. Mixing their own original material with a handful of traditional covers, this duo impressed with dual harmonies and tight instrumentation wrapped and delivered in a wonderful folk and swing sound and style. How impressed, I hear you ask? Well, the following summer, we took a spontaneous road trip to see Over The Moon perform an opening set in northeastern Toronto – a rare opportunity to catch them during a brief stop here in the east – which now rates up there as one of the finest musical adventures we have had. Craig and Suzanne light up any room, yet it is their natural charm and charisma off-stage too that draws you to them; their welcoming and generous personalities shining through like those of long, lost friends.
Like many of their contemporaries, Craig and Suzanne found themselves navigating unchartered waters when returning to the studio – thanks to a global pandemic – but also like many, took time to deal with the blow, and persevered with their plans. The delayed arrival of their sophomore album, “Chinook Waltz,” released on October 29th was inevitable, but as anticipated, proves to be totally worth the wait. Recorded and produced at their home studio in Longview, AB, with mastering/mixing handled by Chad Irschick (Diana Panton, Susan Aglukark) at Inception Sound Studios in Toronto, Over The Moon delight us all once more with another perfect offering of covers and original pieces.
The album opens with “Lonesome Bluebird,” a soothing, sweet-but-sad melodic waltz, and the first of the new compositions from this husband and wife. “A friend of ours gave us an old open back banjo that was made in England in 1898,” Craig shares in the liner notes. “After having it totally refurbished, I tuned it, but not up to pitch, and started playing the little riff you here on this song. I thought it sounded like a bird singing away on a spring morning.” With some nice touches on fiddle from Bruce Hoffman, the lead vocal duties are handled by Suzanne here: “She groomed her brilliant feathers clean and everyone could see / She’s as perfect as a picture sitting high up in the tree / If she’d only take a chance, then she’d be flying free / Lonesome bluebird.” Expect goosebumps to form during this verse, courtesy of the brief yet noticeable rise in pitch from Suzanne as she delivers that last full line.
It was during our live encounter with Over The Moon that I recall hearing Craig talk about being neighbors (mentioned in the “Chinook Waltz” liner notes too) with iconic singer-songwriter Ian Tyson, of Ian and Sylvia fame, who coincidentally provided the title track to their debut album. The duo opts to cover Tyson’s “Someday Soon” this time around, itself recorded by many artists over the years from Judy Collins to Tanya Tucker, and first brought to my attention by Suzy Bogguss in the early 90s. Craig and Suzanne pledge to always include a Tyson composition in every album they’ll record, but with such a vast catalog of tunes to choose from, just how did they arrive at this one? “We were backing up a singer a while back and he asked Suzanne to sing Someday Soon,” Craig offers. “When she started singing, I looked back at the steel player and he was leaning back on his amp, arms crossed, eyes shut, with an ear-to-ear grin. We knew right then that this should be the one.”
Always respectful to the heritage and traditions of the timeless music they share, when it comes to their interpretation of western swing, as found here with “They Can’t Blackout The Moon,” you’ll quickly appreciate the talents of this duo in not only performing, but sourcing their material. “This song was written in England around 1939 [by Harry Roy],” states Craig. “It’s about being in love during the war when they had blackouts so enemy bombers could not see where to drop their bombs.” Craig and Suzanne combine harmonies perfectly here to share the vocals throughout, accentuated by both Cedric Blary’s clarinet and Burke Carroll’s lap steel that capture that feel-good swing vibe – this one would be equally at home on a champagne-soaked Lawrence Welk show as it is here on this album. “This presented a big problem for young lovers, but on full moon nights they could still go out walking with their sweethearts, as they couldn’t blackout the moon,” Craig adds. “We took the big band swing version, and tried to make it more cowboy swing. Just imagine a 1939 Alberta cowboy serving in England and falling in love with a beautiful English girl.”
The western swing returns during “I’m Not Cool,” a fun, tongue-in-cheek original composition that once again utilizes the clarinet and lap steel combination to absolute perfection. With lead vocals handled by Craig, the fun-loving personalities of this duo leap from your speakers and directly into your listening environment. “Most of my friends in the music biz, just seem to have this thing / When they walk in the room / Every head turns like a bell started to ring / Then I walk in unnoticed and walk out the same way / Like the invisible man in his birthday suit, no-one looks my way.” The inclusion of Denis Keldie’s accordion adds extra depth as the tune progresses, as does a well-timed door slam from Chad as Craig jests: “Well, that was cool. Well, how do you like me now Sue? Sue?”
This place where the Albertan mountains meet the prairies is where the duo call home, and images of open pastures and ranch living seep naturally into Craig and Suzanne’s writing. “When She Rides” is a simple tale of the bond between a girl and her horse. “Seasons change, people change their minds / Promises get broken, love gets left behind / She is a strong one, but sometimes she needs to cry / She saddles up her horse and starts to ride.” Sung beautifully by Suzanne, this tale is further brought to life by Keith Floen’s piano strokes and Bruce Hoffman’s fiddle. “Girls and horses – the bond between some of them never ceases to amaze us,” shares Craig, whose contribution on drums recreates the simple galloping of hooves out on the plains. “When life get rough, they have each other.” “When she rides, the hurt insides / Fades with every mile behind her, a thousand tear drops fly / That horse he knows, she needs him so / She loves the world around her when she rides.”
The soothing sounds of crickets lead into the title track, “Chinook Waltz,” a composition in which Craig and Suzanne seek to share with us all insights of their Albertan ranch lifestyle. Both acoustic guitar and pedal steel open, setting the pace for this friendly and romantic waltz, where both Craig and Suzanne split the lead duties. “It’s the snow on the mountains, the wild Alberta skies / The face of a newborn calf, the look in her eyes / It’s these simple pleasures, that I hold so dear / Like singing a song, that no one can hear / Here, in this life I have found/ Oh, here, in this life we have found.” Not only does this waltz provide the perfect opportunity to slow-dance with a loved one, it also fosters strong desires to temporarily bid farewell to the urban jungle and escape to their little piece of paradise too. “Words can’t do it justice,” Craig adds. “But maybe the feeling in this song might give you a glimpse…”
One of the album highlights, for me (based on an undisclosed number of times I hit repeat), is their interpretation of the Buddy & Julie Miller tune, “I Can’t Get Over You.” “I’ve been trying for a long, long time / But no matter what I do / When I turn to leave, my heart stays behind / Cause I can’t get over you.” Paced deliberately slow for maximum impact, Suzanne once again handles the lead vocal duties, with Craig adding his touches exactly where you’d hope to hear them. Aaron Young’s nylon stringed guitar is perfectly suited to dictate the pace, while the surprise inclusion of Tejano accordion from GRAMMY winning musician Joshua Baca provides the emotive element. “I have watched as colors faded in the sun / The color of my love stays true / I’ve been letting go now, I’m not holding on / I just can’t get over you / I just can’t get over you.” Bliss, pure bliss.
“Chinook Waltz” is a stunning sophomore album that builds both naturally and beautifully on their 2017 debut. With a clear evolution in the growth of their sound, Craig and Suzanne once again respect the traditions and structures of the folk and swing genres. We find ourselves in a fast-paced and frenetic world right now, where negative energy leaves us unable to find composure, unable to breathe calmly. Over The Moon provide a lifeline here for us all – offering a musical haven where we can ground ourselves, raise our spirits, and cleanse our souls. This is timeless music that all audiences can appreciate, and is an easy lock for my year-end album honors. Available via Borealis Records, and across most major digital platforms, “Chinook Waltz” could easily be one of the best 40 minutes of music entertainment you’ll hear this year.
Photo Credit: Tatum Brent Duryba @ Paper Moon Photography