Cam Penner is an artist I first came across several years ago when he supported a gig by alt-country troubadours the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. While his name keeps cropping up in various publications, it has to be admitted that not a lot of his material has been listened to. So being presented with the opportunity to review this album gave me a chance to re-acquaint myself with his work.
TO BUILD A FIRE is the seventh release by this Canadian artist who prior to launching his recording career in 2002 immersed himself in a life far away from comfortable suburbia. The experiences gained from viewing life from the less salubrious side have proved a creative tap to this singer-songwriter and the albums have come fairly frequently over the ensuing years. It is probably best to describe Cam Penner as a folk experimentalist and he is certainly an acquired antidote to simple roots music. However if you can tap into his wavelength, rich pickings are there to be enjoyed.
All ten tracks have emerged from the pen of Cam although Jon Wood shared the credits for ‘River Forgotten’ a slow banjo influenced tune with a relaxing almost languid sound. This much misunderstood yet revivalist instrument features regularly in the tracks alongside guitar, ukulele and plenty of thumping percussion. However the roots sound is not the source of album opener ‘Mighty Dam Animator’ which emerges as an instrumental with a brass section that poses more questions than it answers. In fact this record does take a few songs to get into its stride with the title track and ‘This Could Be Your Anthem’ not really registering any desire to return to.
Despite this sluggish beginning the album does burst into life with its standout track ‘Memphis’ where a mini rap like chant leads you into a hypnotic and rhythmic chorus of ‘I miss Memphis more than Tennessee’. This fine song with its memorable hook has a resemblance to some of the experimental material Steve Earle has done recently. This album highlight is closely followed by ‘House of Liars’ with its ear catching roots rhythm continually repeating the line ‘who will rock the boat’.
Just as the reflective ballad ‘Whiskey Lips’ drifts the album to its conclusion with a faint hint of slide guitar, you start to feel that you’ve grasped the mood and ready to offer forgiveness for the slow start. However this release will require patience and an ability to connect with the inner thoughts of Cam Penner. On a footnote the album sleeve contains a poignant Woody Guthrie quote referring to the measuring of greatness in music being made clearer when the opposition is known, a definite pause for thought moment.