Within seconds of “Hard Way Learner,” the leading track to Chris Velan’s Solidago, it isn’t hard to imagine swaying palm trees and fruit-flavoured cocktails. There’s something peaceful, tellingly so, about the way Velan’s even-tempered nature squeezes out over the spring of guitar.
It’s no wonder that Velan’s third record drips with such breeziness. The singer-songwriter, classically trained on guitar from the age of nine, started up a little roots and reggae outfit when he was at McGill University. And what was he studying at McGill, by the way, but environmental law. Damn hippies.
Those damn hippies make the best damn music, though, and Chris Velan is no different. Rolling out sincere tunes with no posturing is actually not as easy as it sounds, as many modern artists drown out their very souls with oodles of flamboyant rubbish. Velan doesn’t seem too down with that, though, as Solidago reveals.
In 2002, he left his law job to go to Guinea with two college pals to film a humanitarian film project. Velan and his buddies, with the help of the UN Refugee Agency, toured refugee camps and put on concerts. They met local artists among the refugees, including Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars, and went on to centre the film on the band. Velan later produced the All-Stars U.S. debut record. He also began to record his own music.
Fast-forward to today and those experiences are all couched in the sort of Paul Simon-esque folk of Solidago.
“Wobbly Bones” picks up with shadowy storytelling. “The last time I saw you, you were lying on a bed with bracelets on your wrist and a hole through your head,” Velan begins, presenting staggering lyrical imagery. “The last time I saw you, you were nowhere to be seen. They painted the walls and scrubbed the floor squeaky clean.”
The power of Solidago comes in the midst of these cheerful folk tunes. The melodies, sugary as they are, often mask something more disturbing. For Velan, the reality of what he has seen in life and through his travels in Africa doubtlessly colours his music.
Velan presents his stories as a troubadour, not a priest, and his sincerity infuses the music with soul.
“I seldom shout, but you’re bringing my devil out,” he sings on the reggae-influenced “Hunting Season.” Featuring Tim Bluhm on clavinet, the tune makes for pleasant warm evening listening. The lyrics goad thought between sips of pina colada, urging listeners to take Velan’s vigilant counsel: “And if you can’t walk away, let it go.”
“A Year Can Change A Lot” is a tranquil, reflective song. Velan talks of the urge to evaporate, all the while sharing words and poetry about the vibrancy and loveliness of life. Dan Lebowitz’s pedal steel guitar agreeably highlights the piece.
Solidago is a gorgeous summer dusk record, perfect for a late night by the pond or a gentle sun-kissed night on the patio. Its smiling nature hides a greater purpose, however, so don’t be surprised if Chris Velan’s latest winds up making you think a little. Damn hippie.