If you were to go looking for Chris Antonik’s self-titled debut (and you should!), you’d likely find it filed under ‘blues.’ But there’s more on Antonik’s mind than endless rehashing of tired blue licks that have been done to death.
There’s never a shortage of up-and-coming guitar slinger determined to stretch the boundaries of the blues, of course. To his credit, Toronto-based Antonik isn’t out to redefine the genre; rather, he employs that sturdiest of musical forms as both starting and reference point, crafting songs – he wrote all but two of the disc’s ten tracks – steeped in blue feeling yet unfettered by the rules that say it all has to fall within twelve-bar convention.
Working with a fine cast of locals, Antonik delivers a thoughtful collection that avoids both musical and lyrical cliché, though he’s not above including a fine shuffle (“If We Start From Here,” featuring vocals and harp from Mark Stafford) or a moody cover of Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” that hail from opposite ends of the blue spectrum - the former bouncy and bright, the latter a minor-key masterpiece of anguish and despair.
But there’s also “Dhyana,” a solo instrumental excursion on dobro that adds a bit of an exotic touch to proceedings. And “King Of Infidelity,” with Suzie Vinnick adding background vocals, is a heartland rocker with genuine emotional depth. The collection’s only other cover, Jerry Ragavoy’s “She’s A Burgler,” is a slinky dose of funk powered by a fine horn section including trumpeter William Sperandei and saxophonists Richard Underhill (alto) and Perry White (bari and tenor), who also add a brassy punch to the aforementioned “If We Start From Here.”
The simmering “Reap What You Sow” features both clavinet and flute (neither instrument common within the world o’ blues), while “Persevering Kind,” the disc’s acoustic closer, features tricky time changes and snatches of both banjo and accordion.
Yet as unconventional as instrumentation occasionally gets, there’s no doubt the blues is at the heart of Antonik’s music. His guitar work is concise and focused, more concerned with tone and taste than displays of virtuosity. His songs, too, are mature and intelligently crafted, with moody arrangements that are invariably appropriate for the material – Antonik is more concerned with getting the feel right than with impressive displays of instrumental prowess. Primary vocalist Josh WIlliams, who also contributes excellent keys throughout (he’s responsible for that clavinet, as well as Hammond and Wurlitzer organs and Rhodes piano), is blessed with a gravelly voice that conveys effortless authority and Antonik holds his own quite nicely on “Double Trouble,” his only vocal contribution.
Blues fans will find a lot to like here, but there’s also much on offer for those craving something a little different – music with a true-blue heart that’s not arbitrarily restricted by formula or convention. Antonik is definitely one to watch!