If I had a voice like Ashley Condon’s, I’d never, ever, leave the shower again. Little wonder she’s nominated for New/Emerging Artist of the Year at this weekend’s Canadian Folk Music Awards in Calgary. Gathering traction behind her second release, The Great Compromise, she leaves little question she’s well beyond the ‘sophomore jinx’ despite the critical acclaim heaped on 2010’s Come In From The Cold. In fact, this David Francey-produced, 13-track collection proves every bit as powerful as her debut if not somewhat more accomplished in its studied simplicity. It’s all about the purity of Ashley’s voice, and should be, with each track receiving only slight, subtle accompaniment from the accomplished members of Francey’s touring band – Chris Coole (banjo, acoustic guitar, lap steel), Mark Westberg (guitars) and John Showman (fiddle) – with outstanding support from Maritime wunderkind, Darren McMullen (mandolin/mandola, bouzouki, fretless bass), or doing it all by her lonesome on acoustic guitar. Again, purity in its truest form.
Condon stands out beyond the pack for the simple reason that she’s all about the song, where she’s from, her life experience and, with luck, where she’s going. All the colour is found in her beautifully exquisite voice and the way with which she expresses it – she doesn’t need to add much in the way of shading to anything else. In fact, the title track (watch video below) is one of the album’s highlights – just singer, song and acoustic guitar. Nothing cuts through the din like that voice, alone – and it would appear that her producer knows it. All by itself, it’s a warm, East coast invitation to share stories, both happy and sad, the present buoyed by the promise of the future, tempered by the lessons of the past. Condon’s endured more than her share of pain, yet her indomitable spirit, her proud sense of place and those deep-dish dimples all come out in her approach to the music, driven by those inimitable, crystalline vocals. At the same time, there is magic that happens with the combination of Condon’s voice when merged with McMullen’s mandolin/mandola (their virtual duet in “Your Love Is Beautiful”), Coole’s tremelo’d electric guitar (“Gentle Man”) or both banjo and mandolin (“Deep Down In The River”).
It’s interesting to note, from the liner notes, that Condon includes the ‘where’ and ‘when’ each composition was written – because it’s important to her. It’s this degree of caring detail that has resulted in another 13 solid originals (3 songs are co-writes) added to the Condon canon – canon being the operative word, as there’s an almost ecclesiastical edge to Condon’s music – deeply intimate, somewhat confessional and decidedly haunting. Some songs prove stronger than others. “Toronto” features a fetching and addictive, sweeping hook despite the potential awkwardness of rhyming its name while the upbeat, down-home swing of “Going to the Country” presents another side of Condon’s rich potential as it provides an opportunity for this band to brew up a proper storm. Call it the “happy, feel-good, sing-along song of the year.” Alternating the mood, when Condon doesn’t have you crying, as she does in her tribute to the hardships she and her mother endured in “Betty’s Song,” she whips up her skirt and leads another brisk sing-along, campfire chorus with “We’ve Got Love,” and the ultimate PEI-homecoming song – the revivalist “I’m Going Home, Amen”.
This is old school folk for an old soul charged with a bright, positive outlook and a big-to-burstin’ heart. Even more proof – as if the rest of the country needed it – that they raise much more than potatoes in PEI.
Good luck, girl. Either way you’re winning.