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The real McKiel 

With his debut album, Halifax musician Jon McKiel lets the music speak for itself. Tara Thorne listens.

Jon McKiel personifies what is known in music writer parlance as “unassuming.” In conversation the word is attached to someone or something modest, but in pages such as these, unassuming means quiet, shy and, to pull another favourite from the lexicon, enigmatic. Translation: Dude is humble.

McKiel, who came out of nowhere to be voted 2005’s best new artist in The Coast’s Best of Music Readers’ Poll six weeks ago, would rather let the music speak for itself. It’s a well-informed decision—not because he can’t speak proudly and eloquently of it, he can—but because his nine-song, untitled record is the best thing to be released in Halifax since In-Flight Safety’s latest. (With LPs by Jon Epworth, Great Plains, the Heavy Blinkers, the Super Friendz, Jenn Grant and a solo Matt Mays lined up for the coming months, the year in local music is already set to eclipse a hardy 2005.)

McKiel, 26, has been a characteristically quiet presence in the Halifax scene, which he moved into six years ago from Amherst. After a smattering of small gigs and some home demos, he pulled a band together and decided to make the record. Enlisting bassist Josh Kogon and drummer Cory LeBlanc, the trio holed up in J. LaPointe’s studio, The Archive, and recorded for three weeks in November. He’ll put it out on Saturday at Stage Nine.

It’s a markedly fast turnaround from conception to release—unless you’re Ruth Minnikin—in a city often huffing fumes of buzz and delay. “It seemed like it didn’t take very long at all,” says McKiel over afternoon tea at The Paper Chase. “It probably isn’t the greatest way to do it, but we would go into the studio at like 10 in the morning and sometimes not leave until 10 at night. But it was a relatively quick turnover. All the songs were already written—minus two songs, all of them had been written for more than a year, I’d played them for people and recorded them on my own, with some friends—so I knew how they should sound and everything.”

How the songs sound is reminiscent of the Dependent collective, particularly Brian Borcherdt—McKiel has a similar broken-heart-in-throat voice and sincere delivery—and the lyrical imagery and wispy, dramatic tone of Wintersleep, which McKiel attributes to LeBlanc, a Yarmouth native like Borcherdt, Paul Murphy and Tim D’Eon.

“The songs sort of immediately took on a Yarmouth-type sound, I guess you could call it, and with the addition of Cory on drums,” he says. “The first time I ever played with Cory, I was like ‘Wow.’ I don’t even really know how to explain it.”

Album opener “Shores” is a perfect example of what McKiel can’t explain. “Well I was wrong,” he sings against initial silence, as LeBlanc storms in on the last word. Guitar, bass, piano and McKiel’s own harmonies trip over one another to join him in a gorgeous soundscape that builds and collapses with a cymbal crash/piano chord duet. It’s a beautiful song that introduces a full-sounding record, so full McKiel has added two more players to his band: “We couldn’t really play the live show and represent the album really well.” And while it doesn’t rock, exactly, it doesn’t fall into sad-sack-and-a-guitar territory either. It’s a healthy balance of quiet and loud, thoughtful and catchy, like the soundtrack to a rainy week.

Which is kind of apt, considering the nature theme that keeps popping up. Song titles include “Shores,” “Fire” and “Yellow Raincoat.” The whisper of a third track, sung against a steady downpour, is the two-minute “Hurricane Song,” which McKiel began writing the day after Juan, which he spent “in my apartment, freaking out with my cats.” The album’s cover, a gorgeous design by Seth Smith and Paul Hammond of Yo Rodeo!, is a tree with all its branches detached, which the pair created after McKiel had to abandon the idea of using a friend’s drawing of a post-hurricane Halifax street. Beyond the artwork, the CD itself and a smattering of credits, the album is almost frustratingly simple and free of information.

“It’s a debut, I don’t know, I don’t really have a whole lot to say. Maybe next time, you know,” says McKiel. “I’ve considered adding a lyric booklet and after listening to it a lot of times it’s really apparent what I’m saying, I think. Most of the vocals aren’t lost in behind anything. I just felt like there wasn’t much more to say than where it was recorded and thanks to the people who ended up lending their voices and instruments to it.”

The unassuming Jon McKiel, everybody.

Jon McKiel CD Release w/Fall Horsie, March 11 at Stage Nine, Blowers at Grafton, 10pm, $5.

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