More than two years back, The Heavy Blinkers were playing the Atlantic Film Festival's street party on Argyle and they invited Brent Randall on stage to perform his song "This House," the eighth of 13 tracks on his new---and first full-length---album, We Were Strangers in Paddington Green. Wearing loafers and clutching shakers, Randall delivered a note-and-pitch-perfect version (the verses require a lower, silkier vocal register than most of the other tracks).
"Check out Elvis!" exclaimed a jackass, there to mainly hoist beers with his buddies.
The comment rankled, but then, on consideration a couple years later, it seems prescient. "I listened to Elvis a lot actually," Randall says from Toronto, where he's wrapping up an extended holiday with family, before returning to Halifax to launch the new album. (Randall spent his early life in Oakville, and moved here when he was 15.) "I watched a lot of his movies, too."
Like the King on celluloid, Randall brings that sense of kitsch, escapism and modern fairytale-fun to bear on his music, along with a healthy imagination and deep sense of soul. "My dad always had 1050 CHUM on"---oldies radio which tutored young Randall in the ways of The Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles, widely celebrated as some of the most deceptively simple yet sophisticated pop ever made.
From the swaying, languid orchestration of opener "Strange Love (Don't Be Lazy)" or the waltzing "Slumberjack," you hear that tradition of melody and complexity at work. On the former, strings and percussion take the lead in realizing the song's arrangement, which Randall collaborated on with longtime band vocalist Jessica Lewis. (She sings lead on "In Our Red Balloon" on Randall's request: "When it's something I find hard, I always think, 'Hmm, maybe Jess can do it.'") On the latter, wind instruments, especially the recorder at the close of the song, seal the deal.
Randall's confidence in his regular players, promoted from His Pinecones (on the 2004 EP Quite Precisely) to Those Magnificent Pinecones for Paddington Green, is total. On stage later this week, look for Laura Peek and Lewis supporting vocally, Dave Ewensen on drums, Joel Goguen on bass and Brian O'Reilly on guitar. (There's talk of jugglers, a unicyclist and other acts, too.)
Elsewhere on the album, French horn (Anna Plaskett), trumpet (David Myles), viola (Kinley Dowling, Hey Rosetta!), violin (Gina Burgess, Gypsophilia), steel drums (Joseph Solomon) and upright bass (Lukas Pearse) colour and shade in the scene.
Musical multi-tasker David Christensen (Heavy Blinkers, Jenn Grant) plays everything from the recorder to clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and glockenspiel, to melodica and bass harmonica. "If we said, 'Hey, it would be great to have this instrument on there,' Dave would run out of the studio and come back with it," Randall says.
Another Blinker, Jason MacIsaac, produced Paddington Green. "If I talked about a Beach Boys' song or a Monkees' song, they got it," Randall says. "They were able to translate certain ideas I had in my head, but couldn't achieve."
Despite the numerous contributors, none of the original character and charm from the early songs off Quite Precisely, such as "In Horsedrawn Delight," appears to have been lost to studio crafting. Many songs clock in at between two-and-a-half to three minutes, almost like interludes by today's standards, but draw the listener in deep, nonetheless.
The songs were initially recorded at Common Ground Studios, owned and operated by Andrew Watt (another Heavy Blinker). Later, overdubs---layering of additional instruments and voices---were often done by Randall and Christensen on computer. The long list of overdubs, the singer admits, built up and accounted for, at least in part, the roughly five years between EP and LP. "We'd often say, 'We'll fix it later.'" But the core---Randall's ideas and motifs with their kinship, he says, to British psychedelic pop and the classic mid-'60s American version---remains intact, as does his band, which Randall believes will deliver these big songs in a way to make pop royalty proud.
Brent Randall and Those Magnificent Pinecones CD release, North Street Church, 5657 North, Saturday, January 24 at 7:30 pm, $8. With The Gideons and Their Majesties, Sunday, January 25, Gus' Pub, 2605 Agricola, 9:30pm, $6.