“…the talent and sound are both there: Conundrum is immediately striking not only for its originality, but also for its fresh arrangements, lively execution, and careful sonority that intertwine brilliant folk rock with a passion for electric blues, creating a traditional rock sound coloured with roots touches that never limits itself stylistically.”
Michael Schatte – Conundrum
Album Review by Fabio Cerbone
Roots Highway, Italy
February 12th, 2021.
The enigma (Conundrum) is quickly resolved. Don’t let yourself be misled by the cover (never judge a book…) whose working-man look would make you think of an Irish folksinger because Michael Schatte, a Canadian from Ontario, embraces his Telecaster in a shot inside the booklet that leaves no room for doubt. Backed by contributions from the Ontario Arts Council (ah, civilized countries!), Conundrum is the second album by one of the most respected guitarists and songwriters on the local scene, a recent participant in the famous Memphis International Blues Challenge who is still searching for opportunities to establish himself internationally. A shame because the talent and sound are both there: Conundrum is immediately striking not only for its originality, but also for its fresh arrangements, lively execution, and careful sonority that intertwine brilliant folk rock with a passion for electric blues, creating a traditional rock sound coloured with roots touches that never limits itself stylistically.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a musician who has only his debut album, Turn Back the Vikings, behind him [Translator’s Note: Turn Back the Vikings is in fact Schatte’s fourth of five solo CD releases. See other releases here]. Mainly a guitarist, Schatte surprises with smooth playing on other instruments including mandolin, fiddle, organ, accordion and dulcimer, occasionally backed by a couple of drummers, a bassist and Carson Freeman on sax, moving in and out of genres with enviable technique. You can understand many things about Schatte by listening to the last song on the album first: Good King Richard is an instrumental medley of traditional folk dedicated to the Canadian guitarist’s musical hero, Richard Thompson (in the middle of the song there is also a quote from Thompson’s own tune The Knife Edge). You understand his reasons as the protective shadow of Thompson is sensed right from Water in the Kettle, the Conundrum’s crackling opening track which would not have been out of place on Hand of Kindness, one of the masterpieces from Thompson’s career. Elements of Fairport Convention’s folk rock also appear in the nervous and pressing Silly Old Man as well as elsewhere in Conundrum in sweeping, psychedelic turns that go far beyond imitative posturing.
There’s personality in Schatte’s guitar and voice, which are evenly split between a love for more robust rock, as heard in Dry Black Powder, roots streams and electric ballads that meet Americana with a pop aftertaste in Genevieve and Daria recalling the masters Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. The spicy song Please Don’t Dance with My Brother and the trotting rock’n’roll of Longtime Lover cozy up to the Texas-style R&B of Delbert McClinton. Fifteen tracks on the playlist make for an abundant harvest and, following the evocative Bread, Water, Love, a poem by John B. Lee set to music intertwining folk rock and gospel, Conundrum lightens up by flirting with boogie blues in Come on Down and letting Schatte’s guitar solos run wild (The Upper Hand, A Mind Mess). However, these are but venial sins that do not take away from the dexterity of this musical tour de force created by the Canadian guitarist.
Translated from the original Italian.