Right from the first track, I had a feeling I’d like I Can See Hope from Here, Eleanor McCain’s new album of orchestrated versions of songs by Canadian artists. That’s because, if I can not merely stand, but actually like, yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s divine but hellishly overdone “Hallelujah,” that’s a damned good sign.
A first-rate Broadway/pop-style singer, the New Brunswick-born McCain commissioned these orchestral arrangements and recorded them with a number of different Canadian symphony orchestras for a larger project called True North: The Canadian Songbook. Her new release, I Can See Hope from Here, is a one-album selection that includes her versions of songs by internationally known Canadian musical royalty – such as Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan, kd lang, and The Guess Who – along with artists less well known outside Canada. Roch Voisine, for example, duets with McCain on his “I’ll Always Be There,” a song I recognized but never knew who’d written.
McCain begins “Hallelujah” a capella, relying on the listener’s familiarity with the song to sell the gravity of the first two lines’ potentially ambiguous two-note melody. The gambit pays off; the track builds as it rolls on, McCain’s precise articulation well suited to the Canadian bard’s wry poetry.
An intricate arrangement paints Joni Mitchell’s often-covered “A Case of You” with a palette it’s never known before. Measured vocals keep the track grounded in the song’s fundamental tune and emotion, even as McCain allows herself some melodic play. When she delves into Ryan Adams’ pop-rocker “Run to You,” she rocks it with a dynamic arrangement that expertly fuses classical-crossover and big band stylings with a Latin flair – and, as if just for fun, a snatch of the original electric-guitar lick.
A Latin jazz beat supports “Undun” too, in a thrilling arrangement that rides on James Bond-style tension punctuated by inventive horn fills. And for their delicate take on kd lang’s hit “Constant Craving,” McCain and her team add some jazzy substitutions and swelling orchestral colors, highlighted by a tasteful flugelhorn, while she keeps things comfortable by hewing to the subtle melody.
Appropriately for our justice-conscious times, the project reflects Canada’s multiculturalism. McCain sings “Aujourd’hui, je dis bonjour à la vie,” from Québécois group Harmonium, in French. The powerful arrangement features superb acoustic guitar from Don Ross. I’m particularly impressed by her ability to vocally channel the cool retro soul of Jacksoul’s “Still Believe in Love.” (Of course, Canada is just across the river from Motown.)
The ballads don’t all fare as well. The pop-country ballad style doesn’t translate too well to the orchestral world, at least not in the case of this version of “Heart Like a Wheel,” a song made famous by Linda Ronstadt but written by Anna McGarrigle. Chinese instruments give the arrangement a nice world-music flavor. But uncharacteristically for the album, the track lacks dynamism. As for “Up Where We Belong” (co-written by Buffy Sainte-Marie), this sweetly overwrought pop chestnut was effective in the first place largely because of the keening vocals of Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes; McCain could have let loose more here, though she does get a colorful arrangement.
Still, even in the few places where sentimentality threatens to overrun the mood, the emotion feels honest, and creative orchestral arrangements provide energy.
McCain means the album to inspire hope in these difficult times. That’s most clearly expressed in “I Can See Hope from Here,” an original ballad by the album’s producer Don Breithaupt – who deserves huge kudos for the album’s gorgeous flavor and sound – and his brother Jeff. But the message is most effectively delivered by the album’s closer, the bilingual “O Siem,” an elemental call for racial harmony and justice by Inuit singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark. McCain’s version expands the sonic palette and boasts a powerful choral arrangement that sustains the song’s straightforward – and hopeful – melody and its message of harmony. (Aglukark’s original version is well worth a listen too.)
Don’t let the new-age imagery or the presence of symphony orchestras fool you. This isn’t melodramatic mush or classical-crossover indecisiveness. The album’s many strong tracks evidence a forceful interpretive muscle that feels authentic and offers impressive surprises. I Can See Hope from Here is out Sept. 24, 2021 on Entertainment One and is available for pre-order.