Last summer, a series of odd videos began circulating around the internet. They were shot against nondescript backgrounds around Hamilton, Ontario, and featured a hirsute guitarist in a lime green disco suit frozen in frame, with a hyperkinetic young man nearby dancing furiously to some soulful, groovy, dark music.
The clips were attributed to Lee Harvey Osmond, and careful observers may have noticed that the static guitarist was Tom Wilson. Or maybe they didn't. Anyone who has followed Wilson through his various incarnations – leading the Canadian grime-rock outfit Junkhouse, releasing a series of solo projects, and most recently playing with Blackie & the Rodeo Kings – would be forgiven for failing to recognize Wilson in a state of stasis. It's rare for him to be the immobile center of anything; he is an uncommonly active musician who thrives on making music just as surely as he resists falling into a single, easily digested identity.
The genesis of A Quiet Evil can be traced to a November 2006 traveling music festival organized by a company called Roots on the Rails, which hosts artists and fans on a cross-Canada train trip, with nightly performances and lots of musical interplay. That particular trip featured, among others, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, the Cowboy Junkies, and the Skydiggers. Subsequently, Tom Wilson began co-writing with Skydiggers guitarist Josh Finlayson and contributed a vocal to a long-gestating project that Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins has been preparing – a kind of concept album about the Kennedy assassination, with different Canadian artists performing each song (more on that in a future posting).
Tom Wilson agreed to sing a track from the Kennedy Suite project called "Parkland", backed by the Junkies ("Parkland" is included on A Quiet Evil). He was so impressed with the Junkies' Toronto studio and with Timmins' open-minded approach to music-making, it caused him to reconsider the songs he had co-written with Finlayson. So they just kept recording and writing, with new members invited in to what Wilson calls an impromptu artist collective. Among those taking part were former Junkhouse drummer Ray Farrugia, longtime Canadian folk scenester Brent Titcomb on percussion and harmonica, and Finlayson on bass, plus other members of the Sadies, Cowboy Junkies, and Skydiggers folding into the mix.
The result is a heady brew, quietly unsettling but also comforting in a 4 a.m., coffee-and-cigarettes kind of way. It's a record where amp buzz and off-mic studio chat and count-ins are as much a part of the vibe as any deliberate instrumental or vocal work. "The Love Of One" addresses a long-simmering aboriginal land rights dispute with music that slow-boils sympathetically. "Queen Bee" features a Johnny Cash choo-choo beat and falsetto harmonies from the Skydiggers' Andy Maize. "Blade Of Grass" sets its central question – "Do you want to stay married or do you want the truth/About a killer you love and who loves you?" – to a slinky, swampy vibe that recalls the style of Wilson's Hamilton-bred compadre Daniel Lanois. "I'm Going To Stay That Way" was co-written by Wilson and his ex, Canadian actor Cathy Jones. On record, Margo Timmins sings the distaff part with predictably heart-melting results.
Lee Harvey Osmond is a reaction to the somewhat precious, light rut Wilson feels folk music has veered into in recent decades. For Wilson, folk is at its best when it has some bottom end to it, a groove, and a darkness. It's something Wilson and his collaborators have captured expertly on Lee Harvey Osmond's debut, A Quiet Evil.
Lee Harvey Osmond does also some nice work with a few numbers outside of Wilson's songbook. Michael Timmins offered up his own "Angels In The Wilderness", and it inspires one of Wilson's very best vocal performances. The singer opts for a spoken-word approach to David Wiffen's "Lucifer's Blues" and then brings matters to an elliptical close with a hell-bent cover of the Velvet Underground's "I Can't Stand It", complete with berserker guitar solo.
"Folk music is music of the people, the voice of the people » (Tom Wilson).