CD Review: Mark Berube – Russian Dolls

Montreal-based songwriter, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Mark Berube is coming to Nelson on February 28 to play Spiritbar

Montreal-based songwriter, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Mark Berube is coming to Nelson on February 28 to play Spiritbar in support of his newest LP, Russian Dolls. Russian dolls, also known as matryoshka dolls, are those little wooden peanut-shaped figurines of decreasing size, each one fitting snug inside the last.

But this is Olympic season, where any mention of “Russian” immediately brings to mind that great debacle currently underway. The obvious talent and drive of the competing athletes notwithstanding, it’s pretty fair to say that the upcoming Sochi Olympics have been… lukewarmly received. You know, the top-level corruption, human rights violations, terrorist threats, unprepared city, all that stuff.

So here to cleanse your palette of all things Putin, is Mark Berube’s Russian Dolls.

Mark Berube – Russian Dolls

One of the greatest challenges for any songwriter or recording artist is the balancing act between scope and intimacy. A closed, intensely personal album can come across as impenetrable or alienating, while a gigantic and all-engrossing one can be airy or frivolous. Mark Berube, the sort-of-bandleader-sort-of-not of the eponymous recording group, Mark Berube, handles this balance with ease and whimsy. Dude doesn’t just walk the tightrope. He prances it.

Having liberated themselves from their previous moniker of Mark Berube and the Patriotic Few, it’s tempting to take this album as a solo recording. But as soon as the interlocking instruments and vocal harmonies kick in, the rising percussion and wobbling strings of album opener “Russian Doll,” it’s very clear that this, more than any of their past albums, is entirely a group effort.

This is restless folk music with one hand on the radio dial, swiveling back from pop-sensibilities to avant-garde classicism. The epic (right, epic!) autoharp in the soaring “Mississippi Prom,” the traditional African groove of “Ethiopia,” the channeling of Sufjan Stevens’ Canadian counterpart in “Carnival,” Russian Dolls is an eclectic and engaging listen. Throughout the album, Berube’s voice is reminiscent of Hawksley Workman’s. But where Workman belts bravado and swagger, all meaty and prone to tics and jumps, Berube is more measured, more breathy, more restrained. Take the song “Oak Tree,” for example, in which the thick timbre of his voice is like the bass counterweight to the tune’s plucking, lofty strings. It’s a fine pairing.

Joining Berube in the studio in the role of producer, is Jace Lasek. Can-music fans will recognize Lasek as the brain behind the intensely-aural indie band The Besnard Lakes. At first I was skeptical as to how Lasek’s trademark soaring, reverb-heavy production would translate to Berube’s playful, restless tunes. The result, however, is striking, like if Peter Jackson had produced and directed a live-action Winnie the Pooh movie starring Viggo Mortensen and Zooey Deschanel.

So your goal this Olympics season: get a copy of Mark Berube’s Russian Dolls, spread some pro-gay “propaganda,” check out Stephen Colbert’s incredible interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhin, two whip-smart members of Russian feminist-punk group Pussy Riot, watch a Philip Seymour Hoffman movie (tear), and ok ok, cheer on team Canada.


This review originally appeared in {vurb}, the Nelson Star‘s weekly entertainment supplement.

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