Atlas Stucco, Mad Love and Norm Dionne, Cameron House, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 5, 2002

Atlas Stucco, Head Start (Catalyst Disque, 2002)

Mad Love, If I Had My Way (Self Released, 2002)

The Cameron House is one of the mainstays of the Queen West district in Toronto -- a hip, slightly seedy playground of bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries and shops that is undergoing a renaissance driven by loft developers interested in selling retrofit housing. Atlas and friends packed the back room, a cabaret style affair of tiered seating, black walls adorned with imitation ivy and draped. This was a grand venue for an EP release party, and the crowd was filled mostly with well-wishers and friends, making it a congenial and very enjoyable evening.

First up was singer-songwriter Norm Dionne, who had driven in from Montreal for the occasion. I very much enjoyed his set; he sings narrative songs with a strong clear voice. Now, for the life of me, I can't remember the names of his songs, although I very much enjoyed one about a woman on a road trip through the southern U.S.

Following Dionne was Mad Love, a trio of sisters -- Audrey, Linda and Wanda van der Stoop -- who delivered some stunning harmonies and engaging songs in a light bluegrass style, with the group rounded out by Scott Rogers on bass and banjo. I really enjoyed this show; the harmonies stood up well in concert, and the group know how give a convincing, dramatic performance. Both the original material, and the covers -- "Ode to Billy Joe" and "Are You Strong Enough To Be My Man?" -- were great fun.

If I Had My Way will be beloved by those whose taste is for light country with alternative sensibilities. This is country folk, replete with harmonies, original composition inspired by the natural world, like the warm endurance of "Winter Songs," and great banjo from Rogers. Mike Dunn rounds out the disc on bass, adding depth needed to translate the live show to the studio. "Tangled Tale" is a great song of soul searching and temptation, while "The Old Man" finds a man lamenting the loss of an unappreciated wife. "Ready to Fall" is another standout song about how love instantly descends on us; and we find ourselves trapped in dramas that are often fueled by our rage, by the things we carry with us through life and inflict upon others. "Now I have Everything" expresses regret for possessions found and love lost: "Oh, I see, I've gone too far." But the best song, both live and on the album is "This Picture of You"; with it's instantly memorable chorus and quiet longing, it celebrates enduring love. Watch for Mad Love -- if they get their way, they are likely to show up in your CD player, or on a stage near you. Better yet, search out this well produced independent album.

Atlas himself is an engaging, charming performer, who, like Dionne, also specializes in songs about misfit urban characters. His moniker is "twisted, urban folk" and I can attest to the latter two. He's really too young, handsome and clean to really pull off the twisted part of the equation; but I'll give him credit for having had adventures. "Stolen Truck" tells of a robbery that leads to romance -- there seems to be a corpse involved, but I'm not sure it really adds to the plot line. "Centerfold" is the story of a French teacher and student -- fantasy or reality, who can tell? "Outlaw" is an ode to a woman who drives the singer crazy, making him willing to ignore her flaws, including murdering her family. "The Place She Used to Work" rings true as a song of reminiscences, some uncomfortable. "Gypsy" is another winner, as the singer describes his friend, perhaps lover.

In concert, Atlas accompanied himself on guitar, and had a lap steel player for backup, giving the songs resonance and a sense of being slightly off kilter, which added to the edgy lyrics. On the disc, however, he's got a drum kit and a fiddle for backup, which creates an odd juxtaposition by adding a countrified element to the lyrics. The production quality of the album is fine, although I believe the dramatic qualities of the songs could be heightened with a good producer, and perhaps more variety in the melodies and arrangements. I suspect Atlas is headed somewhere with his music, and this EP is a fine step forward on the journey. This is one of the better young singer songwriters I've heard live in the last few years; I highly recommend seeing him live for an entertaining and quirky take on urban folk, with a twist.

[Kim Bates]

Atlas Stucco has a Web site here.

Mad Love has a Web site here.