One of Canada’s most interesting and innovative pop writers, Christine Fellows has composed a wonderfully vivid album with Nevertheless. The Winnipeg native’s series of songs are thematically connected to spinsters, inspired by artist Joseph Cornell and poet Marianne Moore, both New Yorkers who died in 1972 after long, solitary lives. An odd recluse, Cornell resided with his mother and occasionally corresponded with Moore, an award-winning writer, gregarious socialite and loner at heart. A dispatch from Moore to Cornell intrigued Fellows to such an extent that these spectres appear in her tales of solitude, which are theatrical in every sense of the word. From the skittish rhythm, playful ukulele and dry vocals of “Not Wanted on the Voyage,” Fellows pursues an ancient form of alienation drolly. There’s a distinctive lightness to “The Spinster’s Almanac” and the title track, in spite of their (charmingly) sad narratives. The songs are endearing thanks to the inherent sympathy in Fellows’ perspective. She cares deeply for her characters — from “Cruel Jim” to “The Goddess of Macramé” — and she doesn’t idly give them agency. With musical pomp mixed with earthy emotion, Nevertheless is a literate musical force.
Christine Fellows' latest album contains all the vivacity, all the beautiful lyrics, all the quirks and quixotic nature of her previous work. Beginning with a lovely cello-heavy instrumental overture with a mouthful of a title ('Let Us Have Done With The Umbrella Of Our Contagion'), the entire record stays true to Fellows' colourful style of songwriting. She often uses her instrumentals as a backdrop to lyrical storytelling, creating vivid characters within the few minutes alloted to each song - vivacious grandmothers, motherless children, farmers and spinsters all live within the province of this album.
Returning to the backdrop of these varied stories, it seems as if Fellows' musical arrangements have only become more complex through the course of her discography. The cello appears both as a solid base for other instruments (such as piano, banjo and violin) and as a more experimental presence, being plucked and played with to create fascinating sounds that add to her already unusual arrangements. Though Fellows falls somewhere in the category of folk-pop, she fearlessly uses classical, even symphonic elements in her music, giving it a richness that defies all categories.
The lyrical songwriting and musical flights of fancy are lifted up further by Fellows' voice, which lilts and twitters as sweetly as a nightingale, yet holds just enough darkness to keep the songs on the right side of the cutesy coin. She'll seem to be singing as cheerfully as anything, but a wee hint of black humour and earthy humanity, along with lyrics that often deal with death or human failings, prevents her music from becoming too twee.
As with her album Paper Anniversary, I'm unable to pick favourites amongst these gem-like songs - each one offers a different facet of Fellows' knack for blending eloquent storytelling with great music to create something entirely unique, a song that will continue to give up scraps of beauty, whether through surprising turns of phrase or strange characters, long after your first turn through the Nevertheless.
Winnipeg singer-songwriter Fellows’ fourth CD was inspired primarily by the poetry of Marianne Moore, and is filled with classically tinged tales of birds, spinsters, boxers and the goddess of macrame. Teen-pop, this ain’t. But by leavening her artsiness with playfulness, the eccentric multi-instrumentalist manages to hold your interest while engaging your intellect. Superb.