Published Oct 08, 2019Toronto mainstay André Ethier's latest album is as peaceful as dew on grass. This nine-song collection from the painter and musical poet is a journey that deliberately avoids a destination, a relaxed freak-folk jaunt that carries a sense of wonder for the natural world and all its idiosyncrasies.
A former member of Toronto indie rock group the Deadly Snakes (shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize for their 2006 record, Porcella), Ethier has already released five solo records over more than two decades. However, Croak in the Weeds proves that there is entirely new territory for this well-honed, bold-hearted artist to cover.
Croak is the second instalment in a planned trilogy, linked to its predecessor by its distinctive drum machines, acoustic guitars, and Ethier's equable baritone. These elements are drawn together by veteran Toronto producer Sandro Perri, giving each element ample space while still residing within Ethier's world.
Croak in the Weeds like it has fallen deeper in this meditative world Ethier established on Under Grape Leaves, shedding some of the more predictable pop and rock instincts left over from his earlier solo records and committing to an entirely off-kilter record. Considering that as Ethier was making this record, he was considering how a pond gets "murkier the deeper you dive," it follows that these songs would be deep dive into a rich world of electronic murk, percussive flourishes, and synth pulses.
Lazy drum machines and intermittent animal noises, from the chirps on the title track to the frog croaks tagging "Wedding Band," provide the sonic skeleton for this nearly bare-bones album. Early on in "Wedding Band," Ethier sings, knowingly, of being "the mother of all songbirds, young birds at my breast," while an electric guitar fiddles and a ukulele lands a few soft chords. "Jenny the Blues" follows this sonic finger-painting even further, with gently disorienting melodica splashes and flute spirals appearing over an easy going bass groove.
The whole affair sounds like the mellower moments of a Devendra Banhart album, with a sensitive, intimate vocal delivery. Although it leans lackadaisical on its longer tracks, like "Sigfried Slays the Dragon" and "Froggy," even the least engaging pieces blend pleasantly with the surroundings.
As with multi-media creator Chad VanGaalen, Ethier is equally engaged with visual art and music; his playful, individualistic oil paintings provide some visual context to his musical works. In either medium, Ethier seems unbound by convention, fixated on the surreal re-imaginings of the natural world — frequently employing titles like untitled (fish) and untitled (dog) — and unconcerned with external coherence.
While Ethier's music captures the freedom of his art, it refrains from the grotesque density of this visual work. Croaks' sparsity and simple beauty gives it a different weight, allowing it to float along easy, but with a deep wisdom underneath. "Summer Evening Pigs," for instance, requires merely a bass note, acoustic guitar plucks and loose tambourine jangles to fit into this established world. It sounds simultaneously otherworldly and totally organic, like an animal's dream.
The album's closer, "Foolish Love," is a waltz that brings a delicate humanity to this fauna-focused work. It is a heartfelt lullaby closing off a touching journey, inviting the listener to imagine where how final instalment of this trilogy will continue the journey. (Telephone Explosion)