It’s not often I play a new disc from an artist I haven’t heard of and am happily aware I’ve made a wonderful discovery. That’s what happened the first time I listened to Colleen Rennison’s See the Sky About to Rain.
Twenty-five-year-old Rennison, it turns out, is something of a Canadian prodigy. She’s acted in a number of both Canadian and U.S. TV series and films before branching out into music. For several years, she’s been lead singer of No Sinner, a Vancouver band noted for Rennison’s wild and powerful rock and roll belting. But the musical settings and Rennison’s subtle phrasing and intimate stylings on See the Sky About to Rain are as different from No Sinner as The Velvet Underground is from Barbara Streisand.
[Colleen Rennison - See the Sky About to Rain] According to publicity for the album, See the Sky About to Rain is part of a project helmed by Steve Dawson, the multi-instrumentalist and producer who conducted a week-long session that is intended to yield five albums for five different artists. Using rather basic technology and recording everything live, the players included Darryl Havers (keys), Geoff Hicks (drums), and Jeremy Holmes (bass). But the focus of See the Sky About to Rain, of course, is the surprising originality of a singer who both evokes classic chanteuses of the past and hits us with very fresh approaches to the (mostly) Canadian songbook.
If you need labels, Rennison is the sort of singer who easily fits into the folk, country, and blues categories, with occasional splashes of R&B, jazz, and adult contemporary. For example, Rennison channels a bit of Patsy Cline in “White Freightliner,” with fiddler and mandolin player Tim O’Brien putting the bluegrass into the Townes Van Zandt composition. The low-down “Whiskey, Whiskey” isn’t the only number that is very reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. I admit, you won’t hear Bobbie Gentry (or Reba for that matter) when Rennison goes deep south on “Fancy,” the one song where Rennison suffers by comparison.
If I were to pick one track that best illustrates Rennison at her best, it would have to be Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote.” It’s not only a very original interpretation with a breathy, soulful, jazzy, and haunting delivery, it completely reinvents the spirit of the lyrics and melody. Likewise, giving Leonard Cohen’s “Why Don’t You Try” a feminist voice converts the song into a simmering call to arms for male-dominated sisters everywhere. Tom Russell’s “Blue Wing” encapsulates how Rennison can merge beauty with pain, one of the strengths of the entire program.
Other offbeat song choices also put female spins to Neil Young’s “See the Sky About to Rain,” Robbie Robertson’s “All La Glory” and “Stage Fright,” as well as Booker T. and Priscilla Jones’ “My Crew.” The latter song, along with Sarah Harmer’s “Oleander,” is appropriately supported by the background vocals of the ubiquitous McCrary sisters. Getting even more obscure, Rennison covered “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” by Canadians Billy Cowsill – yes, of that family – and Ralph Boy Jonson. These are the songs where Rennison can perhaps be better appreciated for herself without comparisons with the better known songs from The Band, Young, Mitchell, etc.
My only complaint is, as Rennison is only 25, she’s much too young for me. But she doesn’t sound it. She’s as adept at opening up a wounded heart as all the world-weary troubadours she is covering. Just as welcome is the fact that See the Sky About to Rain demonstrates there’s a new generation of vocalists able to put new life into venerable material while carrying a torch, as it were, for the tradition of singers emoting strong songs without worrying about creating a hit. Odds are, the hits will come as I’m certain we’ll be hearing more, much more from Colleen Rennison. She’s just the Canadian we need to get the bad taste of Justin Beaver out of our systems.