The opening chords of In Waves set the record spinning in January, but the mood is wholly autumnal: lush, then resolute. A harvest and a hope.
On her sixth album, singer-songwriter Norma MacDonald explores new songwriting tactics, reimagines old demos, and conducts sound experimentations that expand her folk and country influences into 60s pop, Motown harmonies, and jangly early millennium indie-rock. Enlisting producer Daniel Ledwell (Jenn Grant, Fortunate Ones) at Echo Lake Studio in Nova Scotia, MacDonald brought in the bulk of the track list from a pandemic lockdown era in which she and partner Chad Peck (of indie-shoegaze trio Kestrels) would challenge each other to write three songs in three hours to combat their anxieties and Netflix tedium.
The first of those songs was “January”; it opens In Waves with a haunting doubled vocal and gently propulsive strings, so effectively bare its immediacy feels as fresh as when she wrote it, during the first wave of Covid. January desists and becomes the first gasp of spring in the form of the bright and airy “Glass Flowers,” whose sobering refrain sneaks up on you in the midst of all the girl-group sha-la-las: “Whoever said you can’t be too careful / they were wrong.” The Spector-esque harmonies seep into the following track, “Comes in Waves,” which details both MacDonald’s personal experience with the pandemic as well as the specialized one she had as a ER nurse during that time: “It all just comes and goes / and ebbs and flows / but somehow it never goes away.” Similarly, on “Blues and Greens,” she sings “there’s no line” between blue (as in sadness) and green (as in newness or change), as the response vocal urges “don’t listen.” Her voice is at its purest on the spare romance of “Eastern to Atlantic,” a late-night lullaby for adults.
The album features a delightful slate of pop-culture Easter eggs and musical nods: There’s “Co-Star,” named for the harshly accurate astrology app (MacDonald is a Virgo and Mercury retrograde does come up); “Trying to Try” is an early Simpsons paraphrase. “The Heart Wants” evokes the lazy, shiny shuffle of “New Slang” by The Shins while “Same Mistake” is a refreshing blender-drink of Petula Clark and Sergeant Pepper.
In Waves may begin in winter, but it slips gently through the seasons concluding with a big fall barn dance via “Rescue Mission”—a boisterous, full-band song of gratitude that echoes early Wilco recordings– featuring shuffling country drums, slide guitar, strings, and a closing smattering of applause. The refrain— “Where would I be without you?”—is directed at a single cherished person, but like In Waves itself, it’s at once specific and universal, a perfect night inside a short season, carrying us out on a joyous note.
MacDonald lives in Halifax, NS and has earned multiple Music Nova Scotia and East Coast Music Award nominations for her 5 previous albums.
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