Villages/Dark Island

The band Villages had its roots in rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Fun fact: Cape Breton is an island connected to the peninsula and province of Nova Scotia, which is, in turn, connected to the province of New Brunswick and the mainland of Canada. We now have our geography lesson out of the way for today, and we can return to the previously scheduled program in progress.

Villages started as a bunch of high school friends getting together and making rock and roll music. They were influenced by the bands Sloan, Superfriendz and Thrush Hermit. The band’s nucleus formed around Matt Ellis with his cousin Travis Ellis and another cousin, Jon Pearo. And a guy who wasn’t a cousin but was pretty good at playing guitar, Archie Rankin.

The Rankin Family is as close to a Canadian royal family of music as we are ever going to get. However, I can not find a connection between The Rankin Family collective and Archie Rankin, a member of the folk band Villages, so I will resort to judging this album on the merits of its music and lyrics instead of the heritage of one-quarter of the band.

All the band members come from musical families, so it was only natural that the guys pursued music with passion. Initially, they were drawn to the indie rock and grunge music scene in the capital city of Nova Scotia, Halifax. However, that was a long drive away from their home base, so after graduating high school, they all moved to Halifax, and the band that became Mardeen grew. They continued to work together, develop their craft, and write their material. Before long, Mardeen was recording its CDs.

In recent years, the band members began to take more of an interest in the music of their roots, especially after listeners told them that despite taking the guys out of Cape Breton, the harmonies and melodies of Cape Breton still seemed to infiltrate their sound.
“Instead of trying to fight it, we thought, why not be proud of it,” said Matt Ellis.

Mardeen found themselves looking back on their heritage after an unexpected trip down memory lane. “One late night, a singalong of Rankin Family tunes broke out,” says Matt. “I remember saying to the rest of the band that we need to write something that evokes the sound of home.”

The idea from that night soon morphed into the guys deciding that they should create another band (with all the same members) focusing on creating, recording and performing music that was more true to their Cape Breton traditional roots. They named the band Villages, and now with Mardeen and Villages, the band seems to inhabit the best of both worlds. You will hear the results of that work on the brand new debut recording from Villages, Dark Island. Matt Ellis and the band have taken up some new acoustic instruments for their debut album Villages. In these songs, you’ll hear mandolin, bouzouki, concertina, and other instruments.

There’s a poetic appeal to the music as well, with many of the songs representing natural elements and a sense of timelessness that is evocative of older and traditional music of Cape Breton or the British Isles, where the band has also drawn from some influences. “I’m always drawn to songs that inhabit a range of time where they may have been written yesterday but lyrically they could be 300 to 400 years old,” said Matt.

They could be 300 to 400 years old but also sound fresh and vibrant. The opener, Wearing Through The Pine, employs some beautiful wordplay. The footsteps of those who have gone ahead of us have worn the boards down, and the writer continues to wear through the pine, which establishes a connection to the past, let’s say, 300 to 400 years of steps on those pine boards. Wearing Through The Pine triggered a memory, Willie Nelson‘s guitar, Trigger. Trigger has a spruce top worn down over time but has a similar connotation. Wearing through the spruce or Wearing Through The Pine.

Track two is a love song that features a vocal technique that has probably been acquired over a lifetime and frequent exposure. I have not acquired that and therefore find it somewhat unsettling. What I am referring to is a series of yelps that are sprinkled generously throughout the song. I went back and listened to Wearing Through Through The Pine again to see if I missed the yelps in this song. I did; there is one just before the bridge and one at the song’s end. The song Love Will Live On has seven, so I picked them out easier. As I understand it, these are evocative of a kitchen jam session on the island, and I am learning and accepting something new to me. Love Will Live On is a fine song about love enduring on an island in the Maritimes; Cape Breton Island would be my guess.

Dark Island is an album full of fine music. I have dabbled in mandolin, guitar, harmonica and ukulele, but not even close to the quality these guys display. I play just enough to know how good other people can play and Villages are very good at the music they make. They take the best of their Cape Breton heritage music and meld it into something that is as new and fresh as an ocean breeze.

By the time the album got to Lost Again, the fifth song, I was immersed in the music and getting flashbacks to a time in my life that I had forgotten about, for good reasons, that had nothing to do with music. I had been living for a couple of months in Edmonton, Alberta with some east coasters, and they exposed me to their music, which I buried someplace deep in the folds of my brain until I listened to Dark Island for about the twentieth time. And then I started bobbing my head and tapping my foot. I knew that music again for the first time.

Play the Fiddle All Night, track 8 if you’re counting, also gave me flashbacks, but these were immensely pleasurable. An uncle of mine played the violin/fiddle, and much of his music reflected the traditional music of the Hebrides and Scotland. He played the fiddle all night, and my Dad sang and played guitar all night. I occasionally chimed in with my electric guitar, but I had nowhere the talent they had, or Villages have.

“The song (Play the Fiddle All Night) was written after reflecting on the traditional poem ‘The Dark Island,’” “Stirring up thoughts of mortality and what of our home on Cape Breton Island would be pined for when the time comes. The song presented itself very quickly and we finished it only a few days before we were scheduled to record. There was a striking similarity in themes carried in both the poem and our tracklist, so it ultimately gave namesake to the album. The song immediately felt vital to the record and given the spontaneity of it all, it was one of the more exciting experiences in songwriting that we’ve had.”

“There was no way of me knowing, that someday I’d be old myself.”

What a great line. This line is from the deeply personal song Mother. It feels like remorse for things said and done in the past and the memories that haunt us. The closing song is Rocks In The Field, a deeply personal song for me. I picked rocks in the field one summer for a farmer. He got his field cleared of rocks, and I got a tan and a few dollars, which I proceeded to spend on getting “pissed out of our minds.” “And often say pass the (liquid ?) courage, pass the ever blazing vine (tobacco ?).“And ooh it’s something to be finally free.” What is it that it’s something to be finally free from? I think that is a question that each of us will have a different answer to. I know what mine is; I am free from the liquid courage and blazing vine. Over 30 years free. I’ll leave it up to you to answer that question for yourself.

Final thoughts? Dark Island is a good record that will grow on you with each listen. I would encourage you to read the lyrics as it’s playing; there is a lot of deep stuff, and I’m not just talking about the ocean. After listening to Dark Island, I want to head east and experience the maritime provinces and the music while I am there, yelping included, I’m OK with that now.

Produced by JUNO-winning composer and producer Joshua Van Tassel and issued by Sonic Records. 


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