For more than a decade now, Willie Stratton has been building his good name on stellar sonic shape-shifting. The Halifax-based song singer has proven time and again that he can dive into any of rock ‘n’ roll’s various iterations—heartsick blues, twanged-up country, hip-shaking rockabilly, groovy surf, anything and everything in between—and emerge, again, as a maestro of the style. But on his new long-player, Stratton seeks synthesis: Drugstore Dreamin’ finds him playing alchemist, melting down the myriad sounds he’s mastered over the years to create singular sonic gold. As Stratton deftly weaves and mixes musical forms, Drugstore Dreamin’s intoxicating concoction brings his timeless songwriting to the forefront.
It’s not quite a new frontier for Stratton—he’s intimately acquainted with all the different vibes you’ll hear on Drugstore Dreamin’—but you’ve never heard him quite like this. Lyrically, too, Stratton delivers a dose of gravitas as-yet unheard in his catalogue, as he and his characters grapple with the pain of loss, of growth, of sallying forth; defeats both intimate and grand in scope; and failure to break old habits.
“A lot of the songs reflect on transitioning into a new time, or giving up on certain things and moving on, or the value of certain struggles,” says Stratton, who swears his reckless days are behind him. “I think at some point, when you stop partying as much and living a carefree lifestyle, you start to wonder what the point of everything is, you know?”
Spectacular failure makes no grander an appearance than in the lush, rolling Americana of “Caroline,” when Stratton tells the Herzogian tale of the Caroline affair—one of the defining losses in William Lyon Mackenzie’s Upper Canada Rebellion, during which a group of Canadian rebels fled to a Niagara River island only to be overtaken by British forces, who seized their ship, set it ablaze, and floated it down the river toward the falls. “I tried my best; it didn’t go so well,” Stratton sings in a dramatic, soaring tenor over the shadowy “Cruel Master,” torn between loneliness and lacerating love. On the album’s finale, the heart-wrenching piano ballad “Chasing Rabbits”—lent extra weight and a Nova Scotian flourish by Ashley MacIsaac’s plaintive fiddle—he laments an irreparable rift between him and a former flame.
But change needn’t always be heavy. Never before has Stratton ripped as hard as on the libidinous “Need Your Love,” with its breakneck and greasy rock ‘n’ roll sheen. “Queen of the Midnight” celebrates the liberation of a young woman who finds a new life on the dim-lit dance floors of downtown bars. And the title track bops along on sun-kissed psychedelia, following the daydream fantasies of an Aqua Velva man drifting through life with his head in the clouds. Stratton breaks from the theme just slightly, though, with highway tune “The Way She Holds Me,” employing tremolo-heavy twang to pay tribute to a motel lover.
With Drugstore Dreamin’, true blue craftsman Willie Stratton achieves a harmony of style and elevation of substance that remains rare in our modern world, resulting in his most moving—and grooving—collection of songs to date. The album was produced by Carleton Stone and created with contributions from some of the world’s finest musicians, including Stone, Brad Kilpatrick, Aaron Goldstein, Andrew Boulos, Laur Joamets, Robbie Crowell, Jon Radford, Melanie Stone, Todd Lumley, and Ashley MacIsaac. Recorded in Nashville at Creative Workshop, and in Nova Scotia at The Sonic Temple in Halifax and The Loft in Cape Breton.
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