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Robyn Dell’Unto: Little Lines

Robyn Dell’UntoThese days, the term “pop music” is an awkward descriptor at best.  What it used to represent is not necessarily what it stands for any more, rendering it, more often than not, a complete misnomer.

Robyn Dell’Unto is a Toronto-based singer-songwriter and her particular gift is pure pop – glorious, uplifting, perfect pop with more sun-drenched musical hooks and fetching, highly-addictive choruses than it should be legally allowable to consume in a given day. Yet, before you take this description in an incorrect way, let me explain…

By its nature, pop music is devised around being “pleasant to listen to” rather than something known for sporting much artistic depth. Such is not the case here – Dell’Unto mines topics near and dear to the world around her, imbuing each three-minute-wonder with warmth, charm, insight and thoughtful perspective. Life. Love. Love lost. Love found. Real world experiences. Just stuff. As such, what it is she does is not created in some misguided, singles-bound desperation any more than it is intentionally targeted for any mass market appeal. It’s highly personal in terms of how it’s created and how it’s received. And each track on her latest album, Little Lines, is an intensely dedicated labour of love – from the ground up. Dell’Unto takes her time and does it all, including producing and wearing her best business hat – aside from writing or co-writing each song, singing and playing many of the parts. Injecting a good deal of old-fashioned care into what she does is key to each project – rather than simply lusting for absolute control, for control’s sake.

Dell’Unto’s particular talent is a style of songwriting in which lyrics and song structure convene on a song-by-song basis. The music fits the lyrics and vice-versa. Her vocals are sweet, like simmered syrup, yet her thoughts are delivered with a power and a maturity which distinguishes her from so many of her counterparts. She’s driven, unapologetic – and phenomenally good. Simplicity rules, with hooks based around rudimentary instrumentation – sometimes a guitar hook – as the Lindsey Buckingham-esque guitar sound used to drive “It’s Not Me” or the cello effect found in “Last To Love You”; a vocal quirk – such as the uplifting chorus of the subsonic “Shake On Yer Shoes” with its impactful use of violin; or the use of backup voices which inadvertently serve as a form of percussion – the “yeahs” used in “Pretty Girls” or the handclaps that kick the opening “Sidecar” into overdrive before it’s even left the parking lot.

At the same time, deconstructing each song reveals how much of a puzzle was involved to create the song in the first place. Consider the track, “Pretty Girls” – selected for a video performance. It’s a carefully designed example of pop craft –the best sort possible – with a chorus that, once you’ve heard it a few times, you simply can’t get out of your head. Nor do you want it to leave, as you find it propelling you through your day like a breath of fresh spring air seeping in through the window. The stunning “Last to Love You” uses strings and slithery guitar bits dashing around a repetitive acoustic guitar hook and fat drum beat to launch what has to be one of the most beautiful of break-up songs. The hypnotic “I’ve Got So Much To Tell You” is little more than unbridled enthusiasm amidst the pent-up frustrations of being on the road, away from the ones you love. “Good Day” was born as part of a commercial, reworked into a full song and designed to put a kick in your morning coffee as you dance out the door and on down the street like a tongue-in-cheek B-roll from Singin’ in the Rain. The promise of love and romantic possibilities abound in the lush “Waste It On You” – a multi-layered dreamscape of a duet with co-writer Todd Clark. A similarly-themed “Coffee” transforms positive longing into real possibility, as the accompanying moan of backing singers seems to remind the singer of its fantasy state  – an outwardly simple tune that, upon closer inspection, is as elaborate as an XTC single.

Robyn Dell’Unto has the uncanny ability to not sound like anybody else. And that’s quite an accomplishment. With a voice that would make Cirque de Soleil dizzy, it’s the centerpiece of everything she writes. Thankfully. Put your best foot forward. Life on a budget, you do get the feeling these tracks don’t come together in the luxury of a studio with session players and an endless deli tray. Guessing only, this is likely the result of an intensely elaborate ProTools-fest with Dell’Unto playing many of the instruments herself, with the help of Adam King, Todd Clark, Tino Zolfo, Jon Chandler, John Critchley and a host of others – making you wonder where she might go with a big-time budget and the additional contributions of seasoned players. As such, it’s a stunning, complete production that stands tall on its own two feet – right down to the artful design of its cover and accompanying photography. She does it right and is good to her crowd-funding supporters.

Just watch as these songs are cherry-picked and transformed into giant hits for those with a modicum of the talent, as is too often the case. But there is always the hope to be noticed and appreciated – and excellence of this order deserves both. Many of the songs from her debut, I’m Here Every Night, have found their way onto various film and tv soundtracks. They’ve also served as a stepping-off point for these ten new songs, which are stronger and more sophisticated than those from her debut. No matter what happens, Robyn Dell’Unto is a name that will soon come up in more and more conversations – because this much talent can’t stay under a basket for very long.

Robyn Dell’Unto Drake posterThose living in the Toronto area can get in on the secret this Friday night, February 28, at the Drake Underground at 9:45 p.m. (Donovan Woods opens at 9).


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Rose Cousins makes a spark

Rose Cousins & Guests – The Rivoli, Toronto
Thursday, May 3rd

What is it about live music that gives us that added dimension of whatever-you-call-it, capable of more fully illuminating an artist and their work?

Had I reviewed Rose Cousins’ latest release, I might have disparaged it somewhat for what seemed like an absolute lack of light. It seemed to drag itself down by its own weight, stewed too long in its own juices. But then, exactly as its title promises, We Have Made A Spark.

Out of the murky depths rise songs all the more beautiful for their immersion from the din. On this occasion – in a room packed to the rafters – Rose Cousins delivered what her fans knew she’d deliver. And that almost insignificant spark was fanned to become a light so  bright it fully illuminated the room, penetrating all the souls within it.

It’s so fulfilling to watch a favourite artist come into full bloom. As Rose took the stage all by her lonesome, she seemed almost embarrassed to stand before a house so wall-to-wall full.

Beginning her set with Blue Rodeo’s “Five Days In May”, she was joined by Austin Nevins on guitar and atmospherics and Zachariah Hickman’s warm, acoustic bass for “The Darkness” – revealing the underpinnings of her most introspective release to date.

“The Shell” continued the somewhat dreamy sequence before Cousins made a beeline for the electric Yamaha – her ticket to balladry – as she kicked in with the deep, self-deprecating humour she is loved for.

“One Way” proved a highlight, aided by the rich tapestries issued from Nevins’ guitar. The comparatively upbeat “What I See” – outlining the perils of falling for another songwriter – quickly demonstrated Cousins’ ability to command a stage and her ease of adding so much of herself to each original.

Joined on stage by the beautiful voices of Oh Susanna/Suzie Ungerleider and Ruth Moody (Wailin’ Jennys), the song “All The Stars” transformed mere music into a transcendent collision of rich harmonies and strong, confident leads. Back to the piano – the instrument that brings out the absolute best in Cousin’s voice – “Go First” proved a powerful statement while Ana Egge’s “Shadow Fall” clearly upped the ante in her solo delivery.

The return of the band was marked by the addition of yet another sublime guest vocalist in Robyn Dell’Unto, while the four vocalists and the band took on “For The Best”, elevating the original, which is barely possible.

Clearly a lover of collaboration, Cousins lives the process and, surrounded by friends and confederates, the level of musicianship arced with the intensity of a welder’s torch.

Yet the brightest point in the evening came with the piano-based original, “All The Time It Takes To Wait”. The perfect foil for a perfect voice, Cousins unearthed its raw beauty, adding a sheen of pop elegance, resulting in a purely magical musical moment.

This was followed by the song that gave the album its title – a moment of clarity in the wee hours of morning, “This Light”.

Interjecting a quick, quirky bit of her exaggerated Maritime dialect about “the YouTubes”, breaking up the crowd, Cousins next broke into a gentle cover of a much-loved Springsteen song (“If I Should Fall Behind”), describing its considerable impact on her.

A thunderous applause brought Cousins back for a track from her first album, “Home” – performing it solo, her upper register revealing effortless power. The band returned with her guests for another quiet gem with its slow-breaking, lethal hook – “White Daisies”.

The grand finale came in the form of Adele’s “Rumour Has It”, which quickly evolved into a boisterous, full-fledged soul revue, with Cousins leading the pack like a Patti LaBelle understudy, kicking it up in the wet heat of a Bronx back alleyway. It was hard to determine who was having the most fun – except that the audience clapped the hardest.

Nobody could ask for more. This was something special for everyone involved.

Photography: E. Thom

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