Mike Rud – Notes on Montreal
(Mike Rud. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)
Soft city. I knew there would have to be an album somewhere, some time which would capture completely the essence and the spirit of Jonathan Raban’s often re-published 1974 book. As Raban wrote, forty years ago:
“For better or worse, [the city] invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. [..]Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images : they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in a city is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relation between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.”
In Notes on Montreal, guitarist/ songwriter Mike Rud has made that album. Its thirteen songs are all inspired by a deep knowledge of, and passion for the Canada’s second city. Rud was raised in Alberta, has lived all over Canada, but has made his home in a city he describes as ‘rich in everything good’.
It is in part a personal vision, but Rud also sees the city through the prism of its writers: there are more familiar (if not exactly household) names such as Mordecai Richler, Pierre Tremblay and Trevanian, and some lesser-known ones too.
The strongest, most unapologetic heart-on-sleeve expression of this love for the city is saved until the last track, a ‘personal anthem’ to the history, to the human scale, to the feelings stirred by a tiny street in the Plateau area of the city called Rue Le Jeune, entitled The Alley is where to start, .
The Alley is where to start
The cherished hidden heart
All overgrown with oaks and maples
but I especially love
the clotheslines strung above
Garages built like horse stables.
The album picks up not just the beauty, but also the variety and juxtapositions of everyday life in a city of 3.5 million inhabitants. There are the “dealers and drifters, itinerant drifters and ghouls.” Then there are songs about characters observed more closely, like an insatiable womanizer who – the songwriter speculates – is probably driven by a fear of being alone. The impermanence of the city’s university student population is well, and sightly mockingly caught in a song called As the Cross Looks On – presumably a reference to their being observed with detachment and disdain by the Mount Royal Cross.
Rud doesn’t sing. His muse is fine Toronto-based vocalist Sienna Dahlen with whom he has worked since 1997, and who has been a part of this project since inception in 2009. She deals with Rud’s clever, poetic and allusive lyrics deftly, possibly most convincingly in a very tricky tale in which the lives of “horrible beautiful people” are revealed through the contents of their rubbish bins: Bags, Clothes, Bottles. There is also a homage to a landmark restaurant called Dusty’s, which has officially been ‘flipping pancakes since 1949.’ But the album makes no mention of the fact that it had burnt down in suspicious circumstances in December 2012, a couple of months before the album was recorded. I’m puzzled by that one.
Rud does step in as a fluent and melodic jazz guitar soloist, on songs such as Dry Land Pirate. Chad Linsley is discreet and delicate pianist. Bassist Adrian Vedady anchors time sonorously and impeccably. There is also a very classy string quartet indeed, led by Mélanie Bélair. What a great album, and a fabulous taster of the sights, the sounds and the soft side of a fascinating and unique city.
It was Peter Hum’s review of this album which alerted me to it. Thank you.
For a diversion, here are some great photos of the Plateau Mont-Royal area of Montreal