As you can imagine, given the time and energy we invest in discovering Canadian music here at Team GDW, one question frequently asked is how we manage to navigate through the endless stream of new single and album releases, and how we decide which shall be featured and when. In a nutshell, it is a very daunting task. We have made so many strong connections and fostered friendships with talented artists all across Canada over the last six-plus years, making it increasingly difficult to shortlist one over another when filling our article slots.
If this alone is not enough to raise blood pressure and invite anxiety to make an unwelcome house call, tougher still (at least for myself) is determining which of the 2023 new album releases shall take precedence – especially when there are naturally several choices from many good friends to take into consideration. And, again, with our limited resources, we have to be selective – but upon finding an email in my inbox late last year with a subject line that simply stated “Dear Friend,” and learning that Halifax, NS husband/wife duo The Bombadils were preparing to release their long-awaited new album – the decision seemed daunting no more.
Every time we have referenced this pairing of Sarah Frank (vocals/fiddle/banjo/guitar) and Luke Fraser (vocals/guitars/mandolin) in recent years, it has been due in part to a collaborative project. Just last spring, we featured “I Believe in You and Me,” the stunning single from Nova Scotian Melina Coolen, which featured vocals from Sarah, and accompaniment from Luke. Keep rewinding through our archives, and you’ll recall that back in the late summer of 2020, the duo joined forces with another Nova Scotian artist, Terra Spencer, to share “Lunenburg Moon.” Beyond those two features, you will struggle to find references to Sarah and Luke unless you go all the way back to summer 2017, when we included them in a brief festival recap. Yes, making The Bombadils my first 2023 new album feature suddenly made perfect sense.
Released last Friday, “Dear Friend” happens to be the duo’s fourth studio album, following their 2016 Folk Music Ontario ‘New Album of the Year’ winning “New Shoes” (thus placing this new release in a well-beyond-long-overdue category), and their first since relocating to Atlantic Canada and raising a family (Sarah was in the very late stages of her pregnancy during that summer 2017 concert – how time has flown by). But all it takes, however, is just one uninterrupted spin of this latest album to remind ourselves why it was so easy to fall in love with this talented duo when they burst onto the music scene well over a decade ago – performing around pubs in Montreal and demonstrating their passion for time-honored traditional fiddle tunes and other old-time folk music standards. Above all else, “Dear Friend” proves that patience is a virtue – this highly-anticipated new album indeed well worthy of the wait.
Produced by Graeme Campbell (Ben Caplan/Jenn Grant) – and notably in between provincial lockdowns and daycare pick ups – “Dear Friend” is most certainly an apt title for this project. Sarah and Luke offer eleven new tracks that collectively read like a series of love letters (of sorts) – to family and friends, to strangers and neighbors, to cities and landscapes, and of course, to each other. Accompanying the duo in the studio are some good friends, adding their musical touches to the album – Ellen Gibling (harp), Patrick Reid (bass), Ethan Jodziewicz (bass), Kaitlyn Raitz (cello) and a guest appearance from fiddler Ben Plotnick (The Fretless). And as for the songwriting, Sarah and Luke handle most of those duties as beautifully expected, yet find room to include co-writes with Ben Plotnick, Terra Spencer, Sarah McInnis, and Dave Gunning.
Articulating their memoirs with a personal narrative and stellar songwriting across the album presents the listener with many fascinating tales – one that reads like an enchanting collection of hand-written and heartfelt adventures, bound together and wrapped beneath an old, worn leather cover. Turning the pages, and indulging oneself in thoughts of watching time pass by, of taking that bustling train ride into the city, of summer bicycle rides, and of adapting to the pandemic and other life changes, these tales may be central to Sarah, Luke, and daughter Felicity, but are also those that each and every one of us can relate to. These are life’s journeys – we only need to make changes to the timeline, names, and destinations, to make them our own.
Opening the album with “Bicycle,” a track previously shared as a single back in May 2022, the instrumentation to kick off the tune plays along like a soundtrack as the opening credits roll – and once Sarah’s honey-laced vocals escape through the speakers, I too find myself riding down tree-lined country lanes and through pastures, freewheeling down hills on my own two wheeled pedal-powered contraption. “There’s a spark in my spokes spinning round / The brightest hope I’ve ever found / I see it in you and all the people riding through / So I’m not stopping yet / It feels too good to fly / Put your arms out and coast / And I love you most.” Sarah’s sublime fiddle solo immediately connects the tale to Atlantic Canada’s traditional sounds, as do Luke’s deliberate key changes through his lower guitar notes. “Bicycle is about the momentum I felt when I moved across the country at 19 to live in Montreal and make a life in music,” Sarah recalls. “Luke and I connected throughout our 20s over a fiery desire to make a difference in the world, to love in a big way, and to be part of something big and beautiful. We sped along fast, eager, and driven.”
As we progress through these eleven tales, it is hard to not smile at the pictures Sarah and Luke paint in our minds with their poetic and romantic interpretations of such simple moments – captured sometimes just in a few lines of a verse, and other times through a recurring chorus. “We are specks of stardust / With our lights on a vine / Holding on to every minute / And losing track of time,” Sarah recites during the album’s fourth song, “Losing Track Of Time” – itself a celebration of personal connections and cherishing the sweet moments in life where the stars align. “Dangling Like Keys” shares the same sentimental attachment, but in a much different context – dealing instead with life during Covid-19 and the isolationism and loss of social networks we were all accustomed to. “I used to be an open book / Now I can hardly find my page / Thought I could keep you if I gave a little more / But that’s not what love is really for / We lost ourselves in the confusion.” “Throughout the pandemic lockdowns, we found ourselves thinking about the people that mean the most to us,” the duo share. “Mostly, there’s gratitude, but inevitably, sometimes there’s some regret, frustration, and confusion.”
No matter the direction of the subject matter across these compositions, Sarah and Luke weave threads into these stories to generate images in our minds as we tag along. Such images burst with positivity one moment, as found in “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming,” where dances between Sarah’s fiddle and Luke’s guitar create a sense of both familiarity and nostalgia, their vocal harmonies being a warm hand extended to a long, lost friend. “[It’s] about holding on to the beauty in the small things, finding rest in it, wondering where it comes from, and hoping it’s not all a dream,” Sarah offers. “There is a sweet synergy between Luke’s guitar and Ellen’s harp, allowing the hopeful lyrics to rest on river-like wave sounds.” Yet, simultaneously, we are often left wrestling with the emotions derived from our interpretation of such images. Go ahead and listen deeply to “Heartbeat,” for example, to engage with a slower and somber experience of grief. Or smile at the audio clips shared with their daughter that precedes “Little Days,” where the parental joy of witnessing Felicity’s growth and development juxtaposes with the realization that such moments are never static, but always at the mercy of passing time. “We’re singing to our five-year-old … [who] inspires us with her childlike wonder,” Sarah shares. “But at the same time, there’s that little twinge of sadness that comes along with watching her grow up before our eyes.”
There are no filler tunes in this collection, but I did find a pair of tracks that seemingly earned an abundance of hits on the ‘repeat button’ over these last few days. The style and pace of the banjo-fueled “Through and Through” perfectly embodies the charm of the duo’s adopted home, both audibly and within the picturesque images of the Maritimes that form as the song progresses. “Our coastal hometown of Halifax makes its way into this song through images of beach and tide,” Sarah shares – this being the tune co-written with Terra Spencer. “Beyond the cinematic imagery and biographical details, we also tried to capture something deeper than we feel – a movement from the early excitement of puppy love to something more patient and constant.” “Hopped on a train to Montreal / Trees brushing by in shades of fall / Played Saint Anne’s reel / On silver and steel / By a maple parasol.” “It’s a quiet undercurrent that flows through beautiful and true things in our world,” Sarah adds. “I’m going to make Luke blush, but it’s what I feel when I’m with him.”
Tucked into the middle of this album is my personal favorite, “Records And Rent,” a fun tongue-in-cheek tune delivered in an up-tempo old-time Appalachian bluegrass style. “Landlord comes around, asks if I got cash / I have Johnny and Rosanne / And I recommend / Crosby, Stills, and Nash / He says, ‘you think you’re funny / You better show me the money’ / Well I got plenty of bills / Bill Monroe, Bill Frisell, Billie Holiday.” As is fitting for this genre, both mandolin and fiddle dominate, yet bounce nicely off the upright bass that both pivots and dictates the pace. “Luke and I read ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith a while back, and in it, Patti describes how artists living at the Chelsea Hotel would sometimes be permitted to pay their rent in paintings,” Sarah shares. “This is our daydream of doing the same with music, and a way to reckon with the constantly rising cost of living.” “You say you want keys, how ‘bout Alicia? / Songs in A Minor / Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key / Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg / Brag, I don’t mean to brag / But if you’re looking for dough / I’ve got plenty / Of do-re-me / In the key of C.”
The primary thought I struggled to extinguish when selecting this album for review was questioning why it had taken almost six and a half years for The Bombadils to return with new tunes. I would soon realize that this prolonged sense of time was no different to another long-overdue project – in this case, when one of my favorite distillers announced adding a ‘single barrel maple bourbon’ to their product line-up – only to find the expected bottling date to be pushed forward several times by the master distiller, whose expertise deemed the liquor not ready to leave the cask. When it comes to a quality whiskey, we know to trust the process, to trust the judgment of the master – even if our impatience for self-gratification (purchase) often overwhelms all understanding of the distiller’s time-tested patience and creative process. If “Dear Friend” were a whiskey, would we be critical of the time taken to enjoy the fruits of Sarah and Luke’s labor? Not at all. Not indifferent to a master distiller, the Bombadils had no reason to accelerate their own meticulous process to satisfy the timeline of others. The album is here now, as is the maple bourbon, and I’m more than content being able to savor the delights of both as we commence this new year.
Photo Credits: Kaitlyn Raitz / Sydney MacLellan