My English teacher in my third year of high school made sure we would never forget that anyone with the initials ‘J.C.’ was automatically considered to be a Christ figure. This, of course, left us with no other choice than to consider our American History teacher, who sported that monogram, holier-than-thou. This analogy might be going a little far when mentioning Jimmy Carter or John Conyers, but to some they are political saviors. Jeff Tweedy, who is only the semi-Christ with one of the two initials, once sang in “Sunken Treasure,” “Music is my savior. I was saved by rock and roll.” Call me overdramatic, but this is how I felt when listening to Jason Collett’s Idols of Exile. This Toronto based singer / songwriter was a part of Radio Mondays, a group songwriting workshop which brought together such `before they were famous’ luminaries as Hayden, Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans and pretty much the entire Arts & Crafts roster. Radio Mondays was just one factor in the eventual formation of Canadian collective Broken Social Scene, almost every member of which appears on Collett’s new album. Despite their appearance, which makes a great album near perfect, Idols of Exile cannot be mistaken for a BSS album. In fact, Idols of Exile is such a mesmerizing and stunning piece of pop / country / folk mastery that Jason Collett has vaulted himself into the lofty atmosphere inhabited only by the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Elliott Smith and Bob Dylan. What else would you expect from a J.C. who is and introduces himself as a carpenter?
I’m beginning to wonder about the secret advances of genetic engineering in Toronto. For a city to create as many genius bands and albums, especially in 2005, as Broken Social Scene, Metric, Stars, Feist and Apostle of Hustle amongst others, seems unnatural. The first Arts & Crafts salvo in 2006 is Idols of Exile and it is easily my favorite among the bunch, which is really saying something. Everything on this album seems to fall together effortlessly, from the contributions of Collett’s pals to his own magnificent songwriting and incredibly warm voice. At turns, songs on Idols can recall the aforementioned Tweedy and Dylan, with his voice bending at just the right times, at others songs can sound like they are a combination of songs that are entirely original, yet must have been around for years due to its immediate familiarity and accessibility. “We All Lose One Another” easily became one of my favorite songs of the year so far and could just as easily find its way onto my end of the year `best songs’ list. Sounding like a pop reworking of “Wild Horses,” with an equally unforgettable chorus and the country lilts that come with the barroom piano, harmonica and Charles Spearin’s banjo. To create a rousing spirited song out of feelings of loneliness and loss is testament to Collett’s talent.
It’s most likely no coincidence that Evan Cranley and Amy Millan make a guest appearance on opener “Fire,” considering the title of their group’s album. Collett sings “I know you just want to be on fire” and further sings that “staring at the sun will only make you blind, but a fiery glimpse is all you need sometimes”. In “Hangover Days,” Emily Haines of Metric sounds eerily like Jenny Lewis playing the foil in this he said / she said song that can stand alongside anything by Rilo Kiley and Stars. Every once in a while an artist can release an album that has a few standout songs. Rarer still is when one can release an album that is half full of great material. Idols of Exile is even more rare than that. It is an album in which every song is not only worthwhile, they are absolutely stunning pieces of the perfect blend of pop, country and folk. Take “Pink Night” for instance, which is like a modern version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” full of self-aware witticism, old school twang and personal reverie. It doesn’t get much better than “Rock `n’ roll self reference, sentimental decadence, it’s a feel good rhyme, I love a good cheap wine, and a friend with a free line.”
Idols of Exile is drenched in alternately sunny and rainy harmonic mastery. The entire album resonates with the kind of (and I really hate using business buzz words) synergy that is found only in the albums of the absolute greats. I don’t throw out Dylan comparisons lightly and the same goes for Jeff Tweedy and the Rolling Stones, not to mention the Band, George Harrison, Rufus Wainwright and the Allman Brothers. There’s a reason that those artists have gained longevity and that same reason will be what sustains Jason Collett, yet another ray of hope from our neighbor to the north, one ray of many that makes that country the blinding sun that Collett mentions in “Fire,” but a fiery glimpse is all we need sometimes.