Two Rat Drifting Recordings: On Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver

Eric Chenaux – Sloppy Ground (Constellation CD)
Ryan Driver – Feeler of Pure Joy (Rat-Drifting CD)

Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver are a key part of the rhizomatic network of Toronto-based improvisers and musicians who record for the Rat-Drifting label. Both play together in a variety of ensembles including the excellent Reveries, Sandro Perri and Josh Thorpe’s groups, and they even have a synth and guitar duo called the Guayabaras. Most of the time, they inhabit a no man’s land in between traditionally structured songs and improvisation, using folk, jazz and bossa nova songs as the basic for quiet acoustic psychedelic exploration. Both of these recordings focus more on the folk song end of their repertoires.
Sloppy Ground is Chenaux’s second record for Montreal’s Constellation following the awesomely monochrome Dull Lights, one of the most austere folk recordings I’ve ever heard — something like a William Wegman painting turned into a folk song if you can imagine that. On Sloppy Ground, the sound is like a 1960s British folk record, Martin Carthy or Full House period Fairport Convention, warm and coiled, but still with that characteristic chattering of strings at the high end of the sound spectrum. There are electric guitars, violins, an Echo harp, and even a rock song, “Love Don’t Change” with a burning guitar solo. Chenaux has a soft, strong voice and the songs themselves are gorgeous, complex and mostly about love.
Although Ryan Driver has appeared on a lot of other folks’ recordings, notably the remarkable country rock improv outfit The Silt, this is his first solo record. Driver is a remarkable improviser, coaxing beautiful sounds out of everything from a rubber balloon to a ruler to an old analog synth. He also has a terrific voice with a Curtis Mayfield style falsetto even. The songs here are mostly folk/country ballads from an imaginary country: they sound like JJ Cale, Joao Gilberto, John Martyn, soft but powerful and precise. But there’s also live favorite “Spinning Towers” which is given an anthemic rock treatment, and “Why the Road?” which slowly shifts from folksong to hazy “Rock Bottom” period Robert Wyatt mysticism. Toronto’s alt.folk queen Jennifer Castle duets with Ryan on the opening “You Are Beside Me”. Various members of the Rat-Drifting group, including Chenaux and Martin Arnold drop in to play some guitar too.
“Am I lovely?” asks Chenaux on the first track of his disk. It’s a funny question because both of these guys are so committed to an aesthetic of humility, a soulfulness that shines out because every lame bombastic gesture that might obscure it has been subtracted. Meaning that unless you’re willing to listen in, you might not even notice anything was going on. These are both powerful, accomplished records though, and yes, both of them are lovely.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.

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