Every decade or so, a band comes along that perfectly reflects Toronto’s never-ending quest to honour the legacy of its musical past while breaking new artistic ground. In 2015, that band is Beams. For the past two years, the sound of Beams’ two female voices in harmony, combined with banjo, mandolin, lap steel guitar and singing saw, has carved a niche within Toronto’s alternative folk scene. Now, with its new two-song single, The Gutters and The Glass, Beams has fully tapped into its unlimited potential.
As a true collective, the seven-piece ensemble’s sound brings together elements of country, bluegrass, folk, and avant garde to create music that echoes long-dead Appalachian voices while bravely injecting that spirit into 21st century pop. With the writing of co-front woman Anna Mernieks as its foundation, Beams pushes the boundaries of tradition, at the same time allowing each member space to contribute their distinctive voices toward a greater end. With The Gutters and The Glass, those results are well beyond anything Beams has conceived up to now.
On their own, each song — “The Way We Run” and “Black Shadow” — takes the approach Beams’ employed on its acclaimed 2013 debut album, the Peter J. Moore-produced Just Rivers, to a different level of sonic sophistication, with the array of voices and instrumentation beautifully balanced, and each note perfectly placed. It’s what a great single has always been and should always be—approximately seven completely captivating minutes.
Fittingly, the story behind the making of The Gutters and The Glass embodies the band’s artistic intent. In the fall of 2013, drummer Mike Duffield heard that John McEntire was relocating his SOMA Electronic Music Studio in Chicago. The news prompted Duffield to contact McEntire (known best for his work with Tortoise and The Sea & Cake) to see if it was still possible to schedule a session. Beams managed to secure two days just after the New Year, convinced a Chicago friend to put them up at his apartment, and spent the remaining funds on a van for the daunting mid-winter drive.
The Gutters and The Glass comes barely a year after Beams’ formal arrival in May 2013 with Just Rivers. In her four-star review, NOW’s Julia LeConte described the initial offering as “an album that never repeats itself and is full of unexpected nods and surprise turns – bluegrassy one minute (okay, many minutes), nodding to ‘60s Britrock the next.”
One listen to The Gutters and The Glass will confirm that view and then some. With this single, Beams has set a high standard for its next recording venture, but after this experience, they are sure to live up to it. Enjoy these two songs for the gorgeous documents of two whirlwind days in Chicago that they are, but know that there is also much more to come.