I recently had the pleasure of seeing Heather Haley and Roderick Shoolbraid, who together comprise Aural Heather, perform live in a small room. Aural Heather’s words and music are well suited to such an intimate “chamber music” setting, reaching out and touching each listener at a personal level. The intricate interplay of of Haley’s words and Shoolbraid’s music works well in a studio recording and it was a pleasant surprise to see this duo carry it off so well in a live setting. These works are complex enough to have foiled a less talented duo.
To many listeners, these performances may be quite a new experience. In fact, while there is a certain freshness to Aural Heather’s presentation, performances and recordings in this genre have been available for at least five decades. If they are little known to the general public, it’s perhaps because artists in this genre have tended to be somewhat underground, playing to artists, intellectuals, and the coffee house crowd. Only occasionally has a recording of spoken word and music that edges toward experimental slipped over onto mainstream radio. One or two of the songs on this release may be able to make that crossover, or at least get played on college radio stations.
I’ve long found it interesting that styles in the arts often divide not north-south between Canada and the United States but east-west with the distinction appearing to be between artists working west of the Rockies and artists working in central Canada and the American states southward from there. In performance of spoken word with music, the west-coast style is quite distinctive. The performance of Canada’s Aural Heather falls quite firmly into that west-coast spectrum.
At root, these performances might be described as poetry read over somewhat experimental music. Of course, such a description is quite inadequate. It’s true that Heather Haley writes some quite powerful poetry and she reads and sometimes sings it over music created and performed by Roderick Shoolbraid. However, this is no poetry reading, no academic professor reading to a gathering of bored students, no jaded beatnick addressing equally jaded coffee house denizens. The poetry and music here is vital and alive. The performance has its own energy that goes beyond just the two performers and draws in the audience. There is a merging of the words and music that takes on a life of its own.
Neither is the content fey or artsy. In her poems and lyrics, Haley takes on real life issues and is clearly not one to hold her tongue. Among her topics are the murders of women in Vancouver that went ignored and uninvestigated for decades, drug culture in British Columbia, anorexia and bulemia, Wonderland (the movie about porn-star John Holmes’ drug involvement), and more. Shoolbraid’s music avoids the stereotypes of sweet electronic music or the schlock of Walter Murphy’s pop hits. Shoolbraid’s music abounds with rocking beats, solid blues riffs, surfing fills that would do Tangerine Dream proud. Put these words and music together, and the whole truly is greater than the parts.
Watching this duo in live performance and listening to a recording of Aural Haley differs only in the fine details. If there are flaws at all in this recording, they are technological and have nothing to do with the performances. At times, the sound is overmodulated and so becomes muggy. It’s possible that a bit too much compression may be enhancing this effect, adding to the mugginess of the sound. In my opinion, use of reverb is also excessive on this release, although a certain amount of reverb or echo is necessary in places to fill out the sound. Often, I find that digital recordings feel empty and are thus unsatisfying. This is usually because some producer has gone overboard cleaning up the sound until all depth has been removed. I’m happy to report that this recording has lots of “room” and feels close to analogue at times.
I’ve mentioned that Aural Heather stands firmly within an established literary and musical tradition. In that context, as I listen I am reminded of other east-coast artists. Shoolbraid’s spoken performance on “My Mountain” is reminiscent of Jock Blaney’s wonderful performances in the group 2nu2.com or the readings of Rod McKuen in pieces like “The Mud Kids.” Haley’s sung bits remind me of a number of other artists, especially at times of the recordings of California artist Belita Adair. Her spoken style reminds me of Sheryl Crow’s popular hit “All I Wanna Do” and of recordings by fellow Vancouverite Wyckham Porteous. Aural Heather is in good company, and is the equal of any of that company.
Whether you’re a long term fan of this artistic genre or it’s something you’ve not yet discovered, I highly recommend giving a listen to Aural Heather’s Princess Nut, subtitled Spoken Word Songs. You’ll find it’s quite an experience.
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