Greg MacPherson's traditionally had a very assertive singing style, a commanding tone that's at the core of all the Strummer and Springsteen comparisons he's garnered. While that element's certainly a large part of this record, there's something else at play here. Night Flares is surprisingly vulnerable at times, shockingly so on the initial few listens. It's as if the road-weary traveller has returned home to find all his personal problems waiting right there where he left them.
Since he's gained so much attention as a solo performer (and is following up an EP which documents that phase) the question is raised of what differs Greg MacPherson the band from Greg MacPherson the man. The answer is not a lot, as Greg's voice and socially conscious lyricism is still the star of the show. While the full band quite ably fills out the sound, by the time the album-opening "Two Haircuts In One" completes it's clear that this is still one man's vision. The listener doesn't need to change gears much when moving between Greg's acoustic material and his fully arranged songs. Backing him on the record is a nice selection of talent from his home of Winnipeg. Weakerthans drummer Jason Tait is behind the kit for a majority of the album, with Derek Houge and Arlene Fabre filling the role on select tracks. Singer-songwriter Steve Bates plays second guitar and shares a few songwriting credits (primary on "Pressure"). Mike Germain rounds out the main quartet and alternates between guitar and bass duty. The one guest on the record is Keri McTighe of fellow `peg band Nathan, who contributes the chorus to the up-tempo "Southern Lights."
The first half of the record sees the full band and studio used to its full potential, although the production is kept suitably raw. On "Kingston" guitar, drum and keyboards bubble under hauntingly tracked vocals. MacPherson's penchant for writing conversational, down to earth social commentary shines through here: "Put your finger anywhere on the atlas baby / Somebody's there living hard / From the uranium mine to the soup kitchen line / Or right here in your own backyard." This leads to the foreboding and well arranged "Cutting Room" and "The Show Is In The Basement." The latter starts off much like a solo track, with narrative first-person lyrics, only to hit the verse "Now you see I run against the crowd" and explode into a noisy, abrasive conclusion. It's a breathtaking change when you're not expecting it and a highlight of the album. With lyrics spoken as if describing a dream, the down-tempo "Pressure" marks the halfway point and would make an ideal break between album sides.
"Hotel Motel" is the record's anthem, that one song that's destined to become a staple of any future set list. It precedes "Blind Date," and the only place where Night Flares really stumbles. Here's a track with six minutes of music and only 10 lines to spread between them. It's a pace killer. It's a shame too, because the song actually works in and of itself. The restrained tempo is purposeful, as it clearly evokes the lyrical content of being stuck in an awkward and failing social situation. The following "California" clocks in at the same, and leads to the same situation of an ill-sequenced but otherwise great tune dragging down the momentum. Written from the perspective of arriving on a plane, it paints the old Canadian lyrical cliché of longing for the golden state in its most anticipatory light. Fortunately "Man Overboard" speeds things up before the conclusion, with Greg rediscovering his aggressive side. There's something guarded and wary about his vocals, as if life on the road has made him witness to every personal and social disaster imaginable. When he embodies this spirit, he can shout like the only sane person in a room crowded with oblivious, doomed people. "The Sun Beats Down" drops the tempo again, but as the closing song on the record it feels more natural.
While marred by a few unfortunately sequenced tracks, this is too essential to ignore. Night Flares is a collection of fantastic songs from one of the most genuine and definitive singer-songwriters in Canada.