Bahamas: Barchords

Rating: ★★★½☆

Since 2005, Afie Jurvanen has been popping up on albums by his fellow Canadians. That’s him playing guitar with the Stills and Jason Collett, and more recently he manned the piano and sang back-up on Feist’s Metals and Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur. Like most sidemen, he has dreams of graduating to frontman. Unlike most sidemen, however, he actually has the singing and songwriting chops—not to mention the personality and presence—to make that happen.

His debut as Bahamas, 2009’s Juno-nominated Pink Strat, only showed a bit of what he could do. His follow-up, Barchords, makes good on that promise and then some. The production is roomy and warm, the lyrics gracefully devastating, and the singing so wounded that even on his upbeat songs he maintains such a peculiar gravity. Don’t let the stage name fool you: Jurvanen writes eloquently about distance and disconnection, which makes the album not quite depressive, but definitely not escapist.

The burr in his throat and the nods to early rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues will doubtless earn him comparisons to M. Ward, but Jurvanen has digested those influences thoroughly. While songs like “Snowplow” and “Overjoyed” carry references to Buddy Holly and Sam & Dave, respectively, the songs still sound like Bahamas: spare and imaginative in a strictly analog sense. As a guitarist—and especially as a guitarist who titles his album Barchords—Jurvanen proves such a confident player that he rarely has to showboat. In fact, most of these songs are built around a few simple guitar figures, like the cascading strums of “Never Again” or the staccato riff on “Caught Me Thinkin’”.

For all the inspiration he finds in his record collection, Jurvanen doesn’t cordon off styles and sounds, but rather combines and contrasts them in unexpected ways. A shrill ‘70s guitar solo (think Jeff Lynne producing Cheap Trick) interrupts the thrumming rhythms of “OK Alright I’m Alive,” and his loud, bluesy solo on “Your Sweet Touch” is one riff away from the Black Keys. Jurvanen obviously knows his stuff, but he avoids outright imitation: These songs are both historical and personal, familiar yet fresh.

The seams show from time to time, whether he’s giving props to Sam Cooke on “OK Alright I’m Alive” or alluding to Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” on the unbearably chipper “Any Other Way.” Hopefully, that’s unintentional. But there’s a playful edge to Barchords that allows Jurvanen to be serious without encroaching on depressiveness. This is a guy who plays a song called “I Got You Babe” that’s not a Sonny & Cher cover, so the wink precludes any reverence. Ultimately, the album’s roomy sound and well-observed sentiments come across as byproducts of lived experience rather than of an extensive vinyl collection. Only the music is pop; the heartbreak, loneliness, and guarded optimism are all his own.