It’s about time I reviewed something from Happy Puppy Records. It’s a true netlabel pioneer; it’s Canadian, like moi; and its proprietor is a fine gentleman. This new release is by a Canadian singer-songwriter who once led a power-pop band named Beautiful 2000, a few years back. That band’s music was good, but there is definitely something extra special about this unassuming collection of gentle but quietly inventive music that captured my full attention from the first note.
My criticisms of singer-songwriters are well-known: derivative, unimaginative, emotionally overwrought. That describes most of them. Sort a big musical ego exercise. Eight Dreams is the exact opposite. Inspired by a period the artist spent living in Japan and Kurosawa’s Dreams, there is indeed a Zen-like quality in the mindful attention to detail Stapleford has invested in these eight tracks, which meld pure acoustic songcraft and ambient/sound art experimentation in a way that should make the average 12k-label devotee drool; there’s actually quite a strong resemblance to the ambient J-pop of Small Color’s In Light album on that label.
Opener “Good Morning Shuwa Gas” sets the atmosphere with a field recording of an early morning street ad (how very Blade Runner) that leads in to “See You at the Ashita”, a perfect blend of skilful guitar lines with simple beats and Stapleford’s gentle but expressive voice, which is an excellent instrument unto itself. The effect of the droning, quiet but insistent tone of the song is much more ambient than “singer-songwritery”, if you take my meaning.
“Scratch n Sniff” again uses sample field recordings, strings and even some turntablist sounds and beats accompanying an upbeat but ruminative guitar instrumental.
My favourite track, “Shiraishiijima”, uses the lilt of Japanese-style melodies in a very impressive guitar melody as a complement to some more lovely, understated singing and romantic lyrics about “northern lights”, and “starry eyes” as he takes the bullet train to visit the object of his affection. Quietly mystical and very beautiful, this is how I wish all indie-rock songwriting would be.
Stapleford again shows off his expertise in constructing delicate fingerpicked parts in “Cartography n Skateboarding”, which is sure to please all the psych/acid-folk fans out there; it feels like it could have come off Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, but for the understated field recordings going on underneath. That talent for rootsy but still mystic guitar picking is at the heart of “About You”, another romantic number that hearkens back to the sunny hippie days of Bruce Cockburn’s early seventies heyday.
A slighty harder-edged strummed number (relatively speaking!), “Winter Wade Near”, has some great philosophical lyrics about a longing for meaning and purpose, set in a “bloody red dawn”. Honestly, songwriting doesn’t really get much better than this. Finally, a pure guitar/ambient instrumental, the cutely titled “Pet de nonne Stomp”, appropriately closes out the proceedings, again in Cockburn-esque fashion.
This is the sort of recording that you can sit with on a cold day and it warms your soul right up — intelligent, compassionate, humanistic music of the sort that gets drowned out by all the online cacophony in today’s music world. You should not let it pass you by if you like the best in modern folk songwriting. Not only this, but Canadians in particular should take note of the understated and modest gem we have in Stapleford and his music.
A free release, which means you go download now.