Review: T-Time

Norm Walker Performing

T-Time Review: Canadian Folk Music Bulletin de Musique Folklorique Canadienne, Winter 2004-05

Sometimes I like watching Urban Legends Revealed on The Learning Channel, where Natasha Henstridge walks about a cardboard set introducing badly-acted dramatizations of urban legends. My favourite is certainly a version of "The Mexican Pet", the one where a hapless traveller smuggles a chihuahua in from Mexico only to find that it's actually a (usually plague-carrying) rat. The only way the show could represent this was to have two different animals play the same pet, leaving us with the impression that an actual chihuahua has somehow metamorphosed into an actual rat. "The Mexican Pet" is supplied a perfect punchline in Norman Walker's "T" Time - Time Tested Tales, Tall and True, with a subtle escalation accompanying the phrase "He's also carrying bubonic plague", and a delicate pause before the narrator retreats to the desperate jollity of the chorus.

This album features many songs inspired by urban legends and other comedy numbers, sitting next to songs of utter sincerity. There's a lot in the stew here, and "T" Time goes through a number of changes in tone. Occasional songs for Christmas and Groundhog Day (!), numbers celebrating the prairies, sci-fi, songs about electricity, the dominant urban legend theme, and even a tribute of sorts to Elizabeth Cotten - this album has it all, even things you didn't realize you needed.

"T" Time is a long album, at 71 minutes and 18 tracks. This is probably longer than it needs to be, for the length requires several jarring changes in tone. In the first three tracks, it is odd to segue from a jaunty piece of 'neo-filk' called "Interstellar Cowboy" to the heartfelt "Diamonds and Gold", about apartheid and the inexorability of human greed, and on to a version of an urban legend concerning budgies and flooring. Sandwiched by two comedy numbers, it's impossible for "Diamonds and Gold" to possess the weight it should, or provoke the reflection it must. The dominant mood of the album is comic; this is apparent from the alliterative title on, but this leaves the serious numbers seeming out of place, their sincerity perhaps even undermined by uneasy placement, but this is a scant complaint against the pleasures the album contains.

Walker is a terrific melodist. "Lament for the Prairie Giants", an elegy for the vanished grain elevators of Saskatchewan, is impeccable in its meld of vocals and guitar, building a surprising emotional charge in its unadorned simplicity, with a tune as stately as the buildings it commemorates. "Rosa", the urban legend of a couple's ill-fated visit to a Hong Kong restaurant with their poodle, probably the album's standout track, benefits from a comically askew scheme of timing. "Interchange Two Phases", the meeting point of the album's preoccupation with urban legends, black comedy and electricity, is also a terrific pastiche of the "teen death songs" of the 1960s (drafting an intro from "Teen Angel" to demonstrate the point), with a lavish production to match the songs to which it pays tribute.

This is an album that demands to be listened to carefully. The lyrics stand above all else. The comic numbers are full of splendid wordplay, well-chosen rhymes and amusing non-sequiturs ("I can tolerate those Klingons, with their smelly fancy cars, They leave a trail of Lone Star beer cans everywhere they are"). I would almost prefer that this be two albums - it's practically long enough to be - for that would allow a little more cohesion. But as it is, I'll revisit "T" Time in all of its multitudinous modes, and no doubt discover new depths each time. It's even more fun than that show on the Learning Channel. - Murray Leeder

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