Bring up Al Tuck’s name to any Canadian music insider, and you’d better find yourself a comfortable chair. Feist suspects that he might just be a living legend. Jason Collett called him the greatest songwriter of his generation. He is an awesome encyclopedia of popular music, a roving troubadour familiar with the inside of nearly every bar and club from coast to coast, and after almost 20 years in the business is one of Canada’s true hidden musical treasures (hidden, that is, unless you’ve been lucky enough to hear him).
So – who exactly is he? Well, he’s not exactly a folk singer and he’s nobody’s indie darling. Country, blues, r&b, rock, dub and maybe even a little vaudeville are all on his map, but he doesn’t really live inside of them. He is, as anyone who has ever met the man will tell you, his own one-of-a-kind creature from first to last. His consummate musical grace and dreamy drawling vocals belie one of the sharpest and most deliberate songwriting minds in music today. He is as perversely funny as the best of Randy Newman, as warm and inviting as Mississippi John Hurt, and as quick with a turn of phrase as Cole Porter. He is one of that rare breed who is tuned to observe life’s details, sympathetic to our devils as well as our angels, and never failing to find the punchline on either side of the line. And like a fine wine or an old song, he seems to only get better with the years.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of hearing Al Tuck, fear not. Hot on the heels of last year’s retrospective All Time Favorites, Al is now set to release his seventh indispensable record, Under Your Shadow – available courtesy the good folks at New Scotland Records – and it might just be his best to date. Sparely backed by some crack colleagues, Al’s gorgeous guitar and unmatched voice steal the show here, whether lamenting the loss of his Creole Beauty (the seductive “Wishing Well”) or tipping his hat with a weary smile to his outsider brethren (the lyrical tour-de-force of “Under Your Shadow”). His voice – that cooler-than-ice delivery that landed him a voice-acting role in a recent Spike Jonze production – has rarely sounded as confident, and his songwriting has never been tighter or more precise. Striking lyrical imagery abounds in every song, snaking its way around Tuck’s idiosyncratic, liquid guitar lines, and together they provide the meat for tunes ranging from crafty Celtic-flavoured grooves (“Slapping the Make On You,” produced by the one and only Joel Plaskett) to impossibly sweet country singalongs (“Tomorrow”) to barnyard acoustic blues that casts an uncanny echo back to the prewar period (“Hello, Prince Edward Island”).
You might say that the songs on Under Your Shadow sound at once both familiar and intensely inventive. Or that the tunes seem timeless, as though they have always been with us fully-formed and living. But Al Tuck doesn’t do clichés. So suffice it to say that Under Your Shadow is one of the best albums you’re likely to hear this year. And with any luck from the musical gods, this might be the record to finally reach an audience as large as Tuck’s talent.