“There is nothing new under the sun,” an old saying goes. Old news will be made new, if you live long enough. What once was, will be again. Everything is Old News.
In a bold stroke, Windsor, NS musician Terra Spencer has recorded her third full length album, ‘Old News,” in a wholly realized partnership with Ben Caplan, an established and well-known musical legend based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Throughout her career, Terra has collaborated with performers and songwriters across many genres, with guest artists like Stewart Legere, Dave Gunning and The Bombadils appearing on single releases and albums over her recording history. As a studio musician and co-writer, Spencer has carved out a well-deserved reputation for her evocative lyric style and nuanced melodic sensibility. Emerging in 2019 with her debut album, “Other People’s Lives,” Terra immediately garnered notice and awards. Her 2020 album, “Chasing Rabbits,” a masterwork of tender story telling, heart-rending beauty and unimaginable grace, brought her to national acclaim and attention.
In “Old News,” Spencer weaves a mysterious aura around finely etched portraits of faces, places and faded memories, as only a songwriter of her imminent promise can. Almost in cinematic slow motion, a series of characters materialize, share their hard-won lessons and dissolve, cross fade into another. An old teacher, a loving dog, a long-lost love, a small engine repairman, a lonely girl longing for love; each comes into focus only long enough to be recognized for their humble place amongst the human tide.
“Treasures buried in my mind / They come alive and fill the screen,” writes Spencer in “VHS,” the song that brought she and Caplan together, and from which this album was conceived. Sung by Caplan in a raspy, throated yawp, no other song on this collection burrows as deep into the poignant longing that distance, time and love holds. A simple tale about the purchase of an ancient video machine – a Video Home System – through a modern internet purchase, that unlocks the “treasures” of old technologies, to unleash a torrent of tenderness, love, joy and ultimate sorrow. Throughout this song, Terra Spencer demonstrates why Ben Caplan was such a necessary elemental force on this project. His voice, ferocious and defiant, pierces the storyline with proud endurance, resolutely bypassing any maudlin interpretation a lesser singer might have taken.
While the eleven songs on “Old News’” were written exclusively by Terra, Caplan debuts his role as producer, adding some unexpected soulfulness to songs that often meander close to the sentimentality of an afternoon thumbing through an ancient photo album. Surprisingly, several of the tunes are reminiscent in style and delivery to old show tunes, sixties pop songs, and the light jazz of Classic Turner movie night soundtracks. Remarkably, this approach only enhances the appeal of the tales they tell. Spencer’s voice often harkens back to female singers of yesteryear, but Caplan blends in horns, or his own voice to propel the tracks into compelling storytelling.
These eleven tracks are exceptional achievements in songwriting and musical performance, and four in particular stand out: the aforementioned “VHS,” “At Your Service,” “Maybe,” and the exquisite “Brick and Mortar.”
“At Your Service” introduces a nameless service repairman, who hands the narrator a business card that describes him and his life: “He handed me a wrinkly business card / Told me of his young years working hard / Small engine repairs, tractors and mowers / Back in the days when the world moved slower.” Backed by simple guitar and brushed drums, this is music that Terra Spencer excels in. Her voice clear and kind, she outlines another, in light of himself or herself without judgment or commentary. One could imagine an awed audience singing along quietly along as the life, long lived, comes to it inevitable rewards.
“Maybe” will stand the test of time as a blues jazz standard. Both Terra and Ben share verses with forlorn intimacy. Only lovers with open and deep hearts, even if fictionalized, could utter such precious lyrics. “Maybe you shouldn’t do those sweet things, not today / If it’s true that you and I are through, those sweet things will only get in the way / The next time that we meet, I predict we’ll make amends /But a wound is all the deeper when inflicted by a friend / Maybe we shouldn’t see each other.”
“Old News” opens with “Brick and Mortar,” perhaps the most delicate and powerful love song in Spencer’s prodigious catalogue. Although Terra released it as a single (with Stewart Legere) in 2021, Caplan, using very simple production and arrangement, has transformed the piece into a masterly poetic reflection that not only underlines the tracks that follow, but also lingers sublime within the ear and heart. “Hearts can pound through brick and mortar / Cornerstones are crumbling into dust / Walls come down, I come up short / I wanted more of us.”
Only those who have travelled life without paying attention, could miss the deeper meaning of these lyrics and its stirring melody. So soon the years pass, fleeting, almost evanescent, the moments rush on by, yet we come up short, wanting more of these beautiful sounds and songs. Wanting more from the songstress and the producer, Terra Spencer and Ben Caplan, wanting more.
Photo Credit: Jamie Kronick