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The album will premiere via Exclaim.ca on January 19, 2015.
Story of Unreal:
James Irwin’s 2nd album Unreal signals a departure from the shuffling, lilting, acoustic sounds of his 2012 debut Western Transport. While Western Transport delivered ten succinct folk songs almost whispered in your ear via blurry acoustic arrangements, Unreal is all about rubbery hooks, soap box vocals, and slow groove, with the nightclub vibes of a weird dream.
The feel of Unreal is chilly and uneasy, melancholic but with tinges of absurdity and humour. The odd lyric, a saxophone, a French horn line seem to wink at you out of the fog. While embracing current pop fascinations like 80s synth pop it never slides into kitsch or irony. With songs like Everything Passed Me By and Face Value Irwin finds a form that supports a wilder, more ephemeral kind of sincerity. While tracks like Siberia/China and A Wave is a Wild Thing hinge on calm precision, space, and stillness, these dance floor songs carry urgency and spontaneity. The lyrics seem like monologues rattled off on a whim.
The arrangements for Unreal were built and rebuilt layer by layer with Irwin either playing and engineering most everything, bit by tiny bit, or laying down bed tracks with his former band The Moment. It’s a fiction, a studio-as-instrument album through and through, where the tired line between synthetic and organic is beside the point. It oscillates between maximal and minimal with choral layers of harmonies and synths a la Spiritualized giving way to sparse moments of focus and simplicity that channel Bill Callahan. Irwin is a songwriter putting on hats, narrating each song’s imaginary landscape from a different perspective. He sounds at times like a crankier Paul Simon, a deflowered Sam Cooke, or a less cryptic Cass McCombs.
The considerable genre shifts over the album’s nine songs are navigated by Irwin’s patient vocal delivery and the calm specificity of the lyrics. Hints at soul, reggae, arena rock, folk, country, electronica are all subsumed by the continuity of the sound palette and the consistent clarity of the production. (Mixing was handled by Western Transport engineer Patrick Gregoire (Pat Jordache) with production input from Nicholas Scribner (Clues, How Sad)).
Irwin is assembling a digital puzzle, using genre in passing, as landscapes for his stories. If genre used to communicate a band’s ethos, here the fluidity of styles, and shapeshifting identity of the singer is the ethos. If Unreal has a theme it’s that—that music, in the ‘unreal’ world of digital recording, is less about communicating who you think you are and more who you want to be. “You can fake it if you want it”, as the lyric of Michigan Miami puts it, the album’s fuzzy banger track about leaving home for the city only to find the dream you were pursuing has already been lived over and over by others before you: “We thought we were too late, someone already had our fate.” The challenge then is to cast off that same old narrative of self and embrace an unclear, open-ended identity. As it’s put in the gospel-y chorus of Did You Hear Who Shot Sam?:
“I did my time on the narrow road, now I see a silver line
I will cross over from dark and light, til I don’t see two colours anymore.”
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