Every so often an artist emerges from the masses with the ability to evoke thoughts of a vintage time but color it in modern tones. Canadian-born and bred artist, Jeffery Straker, is such an artist and on his latest recording, Vagabond, he takes his listeners on a musical trail that links great Elton John-flavored piano pop together with Neil Young-inspired folk.
While that might seem like something of a leap, Straker is the type of musician and songwriter who has just the pedigree behind him to attempt such a thing, boasting a teacher-student lineage that literally travels back to Beethoven. Born to a church organist mother and auctioneer father, the artist followed his musical dreams and ambitions to “the Royal Conservatory of Music and received his licentiate diploma in piano performance from Trinity College, London when he was just nineteen.”
Since then, Straker has done just about everything an artist can dream of, boasting a schedule that finds him playing over one hundred shows a year at venues as diverse as intimate house shows to large theater settings such as his recent sold-out show that featured the Regina Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he’s had a music video chart in the top ten on Much More Music Canada and has even toured Africa. Along the way, he’s received nothing but accolades.
And after a few listens to Vagabond, it’s easy to see why.
The first key lies in the steady production hand of fellow Canadian and singer/songwriter, Danny Michel. Michel produces a space for Straker that is sparse and intimate, no doubt recalling the artist’s house shows. In addition, the arrangements are captured in a way that feels live and warm, as though recorded in the round, as opposed to being tracked and then assembled like so many songs these days. It’s a difference that really gives the songs an immediate heart.
But the rest falls to Straker and his performance. From the first thumping drumbeats of the excellent “Birch Bark Canoe” to the final, playful tones of “Foolish,” Straker proves himself time and time again. On ‘Canoe,’ the artist showcases a strong arrangement that features his great piano skills and strong, rich vocals, accented by some additional falsetto notes, and a great chorus that finds him singing, “But if just you and me/Were floatin’ out to sea/In a broken old, birch bark canoe/We’d both find a way/To come back again/Together.” It’s easily one of the brightest tracks on the album.
And while Straker delivers his share of Elton-tinged piano pop, he also plunges into other realms, letting soulful strings carry along the emotive notes of “Rosetta Stone” while “Burn the Boats” takes things into moody waters, dark percussion informing a lyric of loss and searching. “Botanic Gardens” lightens the mood, happy piano undergirding Straker’s hopeful lyric as soulful harmonies and saxophone add to the lightness. It’s a sliver of the old school and its pure nostalgia.
“Sans Souci” is something of a letdown, some of Straker’s additions leaving the upbeat track feeling a little too pushed toward the past despite the artist’s valiant and energetic vocal delivery. Straker quickly returns to form with “Raven,” big percussion paving the way for more great piano and the artist’s solid lyricism as “Cathode Rays” delivers more beautiful string work which interweaves with the artist’s keyboards magically, lifting the track out of obscurity. “Myopia” is the last full-length track here and Straker pulls out all the stops, guitar and piano and drums banging out a fervent cacophony of sound that hits notes old and new before seguing into the aforementioned “Foolish,” a short, piano-driven coda to what is ultimately a rather strong album.
Fans of great piano-pop and solid folk-flavored sounds will find much to enjoy in Jeffrey Straker’s Vagabond. With an earnest vocal delivery and virtuoso skills at the piano, Straker unpacks and album that captures time in a bottle, shakes it up with some of the present, and unleashes it in a new, beautiful form that will no doubt draw plenty of fans.