REVIEW: Gavin Simms and the Garrison Hill Band / Self-titled

Former St. John’s-based songwriter and his band offer a commendable, mature folk-rock debut…

“Life ain’t long but it sure is sweet.”

So begins the rollicking opening track Keep This Love Alive before the band bursts to life. The first time I heard the track, Simms was living in St. John’s and gave me a live-off-the-floor demo EP with this song in the mix. I thought it was a great roots-rock song, with frank lyrics, subtly simple turns of phrasing, and a fiery melody that runs its course in just over two minutes without the need to linger. Now, with the same focus but a more layered noise, it kicks off the full band’s debut album.

At its core, this is a singer-songwriter album. The Garrison Hill Band, a loose assemblage of more than half a dozen musicians who appear in different arrangements throughout the album, are more than mere accessories. But it’s really about the words behind the music, and the slightly gravely Tim Baker meets Glen Hansard vocals supporting the works.

Just because it’s folky doesn’t mean it’s lighthearted. Simms isn’t a disenchanted pessimist, but there’s a sombre, moody vibe behind the album, even when the tempo steps it up a notch and Ilia Nicoll breaks out the violin. Feel free to dance along to songs like I Wonder or my favourite, Leave This World Alone, but perhaps in a darkened place where you have space to think rather than simply release in a feel good oblivion.

The album closes with the The Tide, with soft-spoken lyrics that roll off Simms’ tongue and command attention – the sound and conversational poetry of which brings to mind a darker take on Dan Mangan’s Leaves, Trees, Forest. It works, but I get the sense that something is being suppressed, like the final chorus could be bigger but is deliberately held back. Good Heart functions in much the same way – Simms sings, “It’s such a goddamned shame to waste a good heart,” and I want to hear him spit rather than just quiver.

I imagine there’s considerable pressure, being a folk act from St. John’s that doesn’t adhere to the expected conventions. You’re not going to find Simms taking drunken requests for a sea shanty at an Irish bar downtown, and for that I group him with artists like Katie Baggs and Matthew Hornell, who successfully combined an Atlantic Canadian vibe and imagery and with Americana and English folk, not haphazardly but in a way that feels distinctly natural.

Nope, life ain’t long. But it sounds sweet.

To stream the full album, visit Gavin Simms and the Garrison Hill Band’s bandcamp page.

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