John Southworth Niagara

John Southworth Niagara
UK-born Toronto-based songwriter John Southworth's sprawling 11th album is called Niagara, after the region near the border in which he's spent most of his life. But it could just as easily have the words "dreams" or "love" in the title, as the record is as much (or more) preoccupied with them as it is with the falls themselves. In Niagara Falls, Southworth has found a metaphor malleable enough to play with various ideas: Canadiana, aboriginal versus western attitudes towards the land, bridging gaps, sharing dreams, mysticism and love.

The album is split in two the way the Canada/U.S. border splits the land: it starts on the Canadian side before crossing over to the American. And though the South Seas — a brilliantly sensitive yet idiosyncratic band of avant-jazz musicians with Felicity Williams on backup vocals — play on both sides, the Canadian side is dreamier and mellower (as Southworth puts it, "spacious") while some of the songs on the American side have more sting and sparkle.

Southworth's best songs tend to be evocative, romantic and whimsical, and there are a number of knockouts here: the euphoric build and release of "Ode To The Morning Sky"; the slow, dull, spiritual thud of Andrew Downing's acoustic bass on "Folk Art Cathedral"; the mystical, infinite yet minute lullaby that is "Irish Tree Alphabet" and Williams' breathy, Wurlitzer-chased lift-off at the end of closer "Loving You."

But there's also variety: "Hey I've Got News For You" is assertively American; the melody on "Womb Of Time" sounds like it's lifted from the American Songbook and Southworth sounds exhausted (but not in a bad way); and there's a Waits-ian groove on "Halloween Election."

It's dreamy eccentricity; a little crazy and courageous, and a strong statement. (Tin Angel)