Published Feb 26, 2019Digawolf's voice will all but give you frostbite. He sounds like Tom Waits howling against the raw, unforgiving winds of his Yellowknife home on "By the Water" and "Broken Bone," the opening tracks on his new LP Yellowstone. As astounding as Digawolf (born Jesse James Gon) and his bandmates' performances are on those songs, what follows is all the more memorable, serving as a balm of sorts for the windburn.
Indeed, the tenderness of title track "Yellowstone" finds bassist Nik Heyman and drummer Peter Dombernowsky doling out a rhythm that sways like a plaintive slow-dancing couple after a bitter spat. Meanwhile, Digawolf strums his six-string and sings about remaining in love despite earthquakes, lightning and prophesies coming true. He swaps the vocal abrasiveness of the preceding tracks with enough plainspoken vulnerability to evoke Leonard Cohen, favouring candour over poetry. The result: a love song for the ages.
Aside from the eclecticism of his vocals, Digawolf also impresses by seamlessly weaving his Tlicho heritage into the lyrics. That's true whether he's singing vividly in his people's Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì tongue on "Elexe (together)," or "Enihtl'e Ghaehtoo (teacher)," describing a disapproving elder on "Digital Nomad," (in English, over guitar riffs crackling like campfire logs) or reminiscing about Yellowknife's snowy nights and drum dances on "Northern Love Affair." That latter song is also a highlight, because it features heart swell-inducing horn playing by the late Ralph Carney (collaborator of Tom Waits, the Black Keys, Frank Black and more).
With Yellowstone, Digawolf defies the tired cliches about northern Canada being barren and uninviting, recasting that locale as vibrant, storied and utterly romantic. And in the process, Digawolf and his cohorts have crafted a modern Canadian masterpiece — Yellowknife's answer to Cohen's Montreal hymns, Young's Prairie parables, Lang's Albertan anthems, and Doiron's Maritime deep cuts. Yes, Digawolf's work here stands shoulder to shoulder with those legends (not to mention, of course, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq and Kashtin). Although he declares "nothing is written in stone," on the simmering and sensual Yellowstone track "Written In Stone," you'll beg to differ after hearing this exquisite LP, which is made to stand the test of time like a deft and deep engraving in granite.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review misidentified Digawolf band members. Exclaim! sincerely regrets the error. (Independent)