Oh, for the album cover! A 12″ invitation to the delights within, able to be scrutinised without the aid of a magnifying glass. Cam Penner’s latest album, Sex & Politics, begs to be given the vinyl treatment if only for the listener to be able to see more clearly into the fairy lit magical space in the woods where the album was crafted. Recorded over the space of ten days in Penner’s hand built wooden shack in the back of beyond Sex & Politics is a rough hewn blast of folk, blues, Gospel and vintage rock’n’roll tempered with layers of electronic wizardry provided by sidekick Jon Wood. Pictured on the artwork, Penner and Wood are briefly glimpsed within their wooden cathedral of sound, tall pines looming on either side, a line of fairy lights offering some respite from the arboreal gloom; there’s no sight of a cauldron but they have whisked up a potent brew.
Less varied and more introspective than its 2013 predecessor, To Build A Fire, Sex & Politics finds Penner rooting around the mysteries of love. He can be gentle or ferocious, the opening I’m Calling Out a tender love song that opens with a Neil Young like harmonica wheeze over Wood’s sonic tapestry and some gentle guitar picking. The song then flows into the frantic pleading of I Believe, an urgent bass drum kicking throughout as Penner wails and rails before a snarling guitar rips in and the song hurtles to an exhilarating climax. Broke Down offers some respite with its shimmering fragility as Penner sings in a higher register sounding vulnerable and hurt. The bare boned string plucking and burbles of electronics are spooky invoking the deep dark woods at the heart of the album’s genesis.
Even with Wood refreshing his bag of tricks and Penner multitracking his voice on several of the songs it’s hard to believe that the sometimes cacophonous result is the work of just two men in a cabin (although Scott Bayley is credited with accordion, melodeon and trombone). There’s a visceral punch to the rousing Hey You! (Lovers Of Music), Cheating & Robbing is a two minute snatch of layered voices and crashing cymbals which segues into Can’t Afford The Blues, a slow burning fuse that takes his song, House Of Liars (from To Build A Fire) into darker territory. Wood (and Bayley) add sitar like drone effects to the barbed guitar of Come Back To Me with Penner crying out like a voice in the wilderness, lost and lonely and imploring the spirits. Spirits are summoned again on the Gospel chant of Bring Forth The Healing which opens with hand claps and a spectral Penner whispering, ” Come On Come On” before a rattling bonelike drum and junkyard piano lurch into view amid washes of mellotron pulling the song along like a ghost train.
While there seems to be precious little politics on show here Penner closes the album as he opened it with another love song and again he recalls Neil Young as the harmonica returns on the honeyed lap steel embroidered Look Out Your Window. Here he plaintively sings to his Rapunzel on an unashamedly romantic song that captures the magic of love.