Eric Chenaux – Dull Lights

Eric Chenaux – Dull Lights (Constellation)
Eric Chenaux is a key figure in Toronto’s improv and alternative music scenes, co-curating the excellent Rat-Drifting label, while playing in a variety of ensembles including The Reveries, Drum Heller and The Draperies. Although Chenaux’s guitar style is emphatically post-Derek Bailey he and fellow Rat Drifter Martin Arnold, who contributes banjo to this disk have long had a taste for British folk music, and traditional song structures. A number of songs on this disk, Chenaux’s first solo record, have already been interpreted by other Toronto folks, notably the wonderful Ryan Driver Quartet, who play the songs alongside “You Go To My Head” and others. Still, if this is British folk music, it is Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy on too many downers, drifting away from each other and back again in the night.
If this is folk music, it is truly some of the most washed-out, abstract folk music ever made, a tenth generation cassette copy of an old Topic recording, listened to outdoors on a windy day. These are indeed “dull lights”, barely visible to the naked eye – or audible to the casually listening ear. At first, it sounds about as catchy as a Francisco Lopez record, as sensual as a Robert Ryman painting. But as with the Reveries strange decision to physically gag themselves and obstruct their arm movements when they play jazz standards, the obstacles and austerity here serve to intensify the attempts to communicate something, and to allow an intense soulfulness to emerge in a most unlikely way. Difficulty in communicating, or aversion to it, might be a Canadian motif (think of the trauma victims of Atom Egoyan’s movies or David Cronenberg’s The Fly for that matter). Although Chenaux’s music has little to do with ideas of a national music, the pathos of these ghostly folk forms, transmitted with fierce sincerity through time and space, has considerable depth and honesty to it, and feels more real than the retro gestures and irony of many of the new folk folks. Abstract they may be, but flying low beneath the emotional radar, these songs can nevertheless break your heart.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

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