Before Jake Nicoll had released 10 solo albums, toured the world over with The Burning Hell, and mixed and mastered half of the city’s indie bands, he was a high school kid somewhere in Ontario obsessively dismantling and rebuilding an old 80cc dirt bike in his dad’s basement.
Nicoll’s talent for taking apart and putting back together objects led his parents to assume he’d one day become an engineer, and in a sense they were right. Most days Nicoll can be found behind a mixer as a sound engineer, constructing and deconstructing sounds, layers and effects for a myriad of projects.
His new solo album, Stone Arch, was born out of a desire to sonically and structurally strip all of this away.
Recorded in a remote cabin in Summerville, Newfoundland, Nicoll and longtime collaborator Kira Sheppard spent a week swimming in the ocean, snapping pictures, and practicing arrangements and takes, before recording and mixing the album on the spot, to a small tape machine. With three microphones, two voices, a harp, and a guitar, the 12 songs on Stone Arch accomplish what they set out to.
Sparse and introspective, the philosophical lyrics, simple melodies, and harmonies wash over you, while Kira Sheppard’s soft vocals and harp inhabit the minimalism perfectly. The songs are reminiscent of those found on Nick Drake’s, bare-bones Pink Moon, but Stone Arch, or any of Nicoll’s albums, don’t really demand references.
Nicoll is an earnest and unforced songwriter, and this comes through with whatever approach he takes, or Moogs and tape delays he employs. Still, Nicoll almost always seems to observe and reflect at a safe distance. Spiralling into darkness and self-doubt isn’t a necessary ingredient, but Nicoll’s 2016 Borealis-winner, double album Two Things/Half of Nothing was such a standout in part because of the vulnerability he allowed himself to display on it.
On Stone Arch, “How Did it Used to Go,” and the closing track “The Long Way Home,” hint at this, but Nicoll’s talent and intellect are such that he sometimes seems naturally compelled to shelter himself underneath it.
But perhaps this is the brain of the engineer at work. With each album released Nicoll has explored a different facet of music, and the music making process, analytically taking it apart, holding it up to the light, and putting it back together to create something distinctly his. On his last album, Entropy, for example, Nicoll’s stated goal was a contemplative consideration of the gradual decline of musical meaning and order into disorder. On Stone Arch, self-sufficient songs, devoid of layers and effects served as his guide.
Stone Arch may be a slightly quieter soundscape than what we’re used to hearing from Nicoll, but the songs here are no less fully formed. Nicoll’s overall creative approach to music is an uncommon one that never fails to produce intriguing and unique albums, and Stone Arch is no exception. These 12 sparse songs stand on their own easily, but I suspect that with Nicoll there are even more layers to be stripped back and revealed. Standout tracks: The Long Way Home, Too Slow.