Two of Canada’s finest performing artists, Sarah Slean and Hawksley Workman, release a brand new EP titled “These Two” today. The elegance of these song selections, consisting of one original and three carefully chosen covers, is meant, I suspect, to be more of an invitation. First, to their concert series beginning February 27th and second, to a celebration and promise of something extraordinary. For when two gifted songwriters and singers connect to create, then perhaps anything is possible. Within the alluring, restrained opening piano chords of “Flamenco,” Gord Downie’s mysterious evocation to love, courage, art and grace; their two voices almost challengingly whisper, with heartbreaking poignancy, “Does it diminish your super-capacity to love?” They painstakingly pay tribute and yet elevate the sense and meaning of these words beyond their immediate poetic impression, toward some hurtling revelation. “Walk like a matador, Don’t be chicken-shit,” Sarah sings alone, while slow thunder billows beneath her delicate phrasing. This song is meant to travel deep and deeper still, into sorrow, into joy, into inspiration, into a realm that perhaps only the human heart may endure.
My first encounter with Sarah Slean’s songwriting occurred on a lonely snow covered highway north of Timmins, ON, in 2011. Her song “The Right Words,” from her magical album, “Land and Sea,” swelled majestically from my car radio and took my heart away. In her attempt to write authentic, purposeful songs, comprised of her own search for meaning, she had touched me in a way that songs had not done so for many years. “The Right Words” became a cornerstone for my own, soon to be revealed journey. A journey that would find me changed and changing in both my profession and my chosen home. Hawksley Workman has consistently produced a staggering array of music over his lengthy career. His music styling and songs are of such breadth and originality, that he continues to amaze and exhilarate his loyal fan base. In 2019, his album, “Median Age Wasteland,” was a sonic fun house of varying musical approaches and themes. The album was a delightful surprise and well worth exploration for anyone interested in song writing and production at its very best.
“These Two” marks a collaboration between two musical friends who have known each other over the past twenty-five years. The remarkable blending of their voices and sophisticated arrangements should likely come as no surprise, and yet the emotional artistry of these songs must not be overlooked. The aforementioned “Flamenco” is a song of delicate beauty that will touch any heart in empathic pathos. Yet this is only a continuation of the theme the EP is exploring. Opening with their song “Wound You,” a multi layered, Eastern infused, infectious dance groove, Slean chants: “I can say this for certain, there is a hole in you and me / That‘s why they need you hurting, they need you broken as you can be / We arrived here perfect, we were holding the mystery / Then it slipped out slowly, they want you broken as you can be / The world is going to wound you, wound you, bad.” Destined for the airwaves, the songs that follow are where this duo lead you, so as a listener you will indeed recognize where and how deeply you are hurting, and how deeply you are wounded.
If “Flamenco” is bursting with loss and grief, then their cover of the famous Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes hit, “Up Where We Belong,” will take your breath away and point toward where the truth may lay: “Who knows what tomorrow brings / Love lift us where we belong / Far from the worlds we know / Where the clear winds blow.” Slean and Workman collaborate with simple honesty and clearly earned respect for both the lyric and the reach of this powerful song. Likewise, “Lost Together,” the famed Blue Rodeo hit, is surrounded by slow penetrating beats and sung almost with world weary certainty. The EP closes with a reimagined version of “Wound You,” notably repurposed as a smoky version. Smoke will disguise as much as it brings tears to your eyes: “Over the scattered ashes, we’ll dig out who we used to be / We’ll put it back together, back together piece by piece / And the champions of sadness, calling from your TV / They will never tell you, that to be broken, is to be free / The world is gonna wound you.” Thus ending as the music sweeps around them, Slean and Workman chant those lines once more: “the world is going to wound you, wound you, bad.” With that simple, repeated phrase, they draw in stark relief, not only the hallway to be crossed, but the doorway that awaits beyond.