John K. Samson - Winter Wheat (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

John K. Samson

Winter Wheat (2016)

ANTI- Records

John K. Samson's solo work stands tall on three main pillars -- introspection, contemplation and self-reflection. Winter Wheat embodies all of this in spades and you can sense off the bat how deeply ingrained they are into the album. He distills his most personal stories to date, deeply at that, and lullaby them into you in a heart-and-soul fashion that few can properly pull off. As a fan of The Weakerthans, I've loved most of his work but I'll be the first to admit his solo material doesn't translate that well to me. I'm not sure why it doesn't resonate as much but I guess it's because I have really high standards for him as a musician. One whom I greatly admire and respect. This record, as endearing and candid as it is, struggles to keep momentum from start to finish, with some parts really standing out, but the segments that falter really do fall prey to a tedious mid-section. I think the lack of melody in these parts make it a bit tough to get through but that aside, it's a great collection of stories and a rewarding musical novel that's every bit as ambitious as it is relatable.

A lot of Samson's passions pour into Winter Wheat. And it's taken years to construct the gates to keep these confined. Retooling, refining and repurposing. Along the way, he's found ways of letting his influences speak on the record even louder than ones before which felt more direct yet lacking a certain narrative. This is found here though. A bigger story at play. Some inspirations have come from sources like Neil Young's On The Beach, the work of Miriam Toews and other literature and films. He really wants the record to be a work of art and it does start off in a good vein. "Select All Delete" rings so soothingly with an ethereal hum and pianos chiming in as he talks about balancing the nostalgia of the good old days with a world where sentiment seems lost with technology. More so, he goes on about the struggle with this two notions -- the old and the new. As things progress, Winter Wheat dances around blues, folk, jazz and country with his acoustic guitar as the heartstone, of course. Quite a few comparisons pop to mind such as The Front Bottoms, Brian Eno, Sufjan Stevens, Frank Turner and Eliott Smith. I'm sure at some point or the other, a few of these impacted on this record as well, if not in style then at least in lyrical arrangement.

Songs like "Winter Wheat" with its harmonica-laced ending and "Alpha Adept" which incrementally rises at the end are a few of the more meaningful tracks that light the fireside for you to come in from the cold. It's these songs where Samson bares his soul the most, really illuminating his hopes, fears and dreams. "Requests" is another, talking about the family of a friend and their history of moving from Iceland to Canada. Looking for another shiner? Look no further than the uptempo acoustic "Oldest Oak at Brookside" which triest to jumpstart that lull I mentioned midway. To an extent it does but again when the album drags, it really drags. "Vampire Alberta Blues" later on keeps the ignition running as a '90s-era percussion-driven jam, complemented by a bassline that really lays track to drive on. It's stuff like this I wanted more of. I appreciate these types of tunes as they pack so much attitude and rhythm. That's what I think killed off a few songs -- they lacked character and personality. However, flaws aside, if this new anthology doesn't grab you immediately, I think it'll grow on you. Winter Wheat isn't something to let melt away without dipping your toes in. It'll be freezing cold but let it simmer. You'll find something to connect with.