This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
Warning: These are not your father’s train songs.
Poet Clive Holden’s new album Trains of Winnipeg is a collaboration with guitarist John K. Samson, drummer/percussionist Jason Tait (both from The Weakerthans) and keyboardist Christine Fellows. But anybody who buys this expecting to hear the punk rock-fuelled local equivalent of, say, Lonesome Train, Mystery Train, Mule Train, Train Kept A-Rolling or even Train in Vain is going to be in for a surprise. Perhaps even disappointment. Because, in truth, not all of these songs are about trains. Not all of them are even about Winnipeg. In fact, most of them aren’t even songs. At least not in the traditional sense. That subhed — Poems & Music — that’s the fine print on this contract that gives away the deal.
Trains of Winnipeg is closer to a spoken-word album than a musical one. Using trains, motion, transience and travel as symbols of freedom, escape and distance (both physical and emotional), Holden proffers a series of poems, stories and reminiscences, set against a wide variety of musical backdrops supplied by the players. Some of these are gently rolling and repetitive, like a train pulling out of a station. Some are otherworldly ambient, experimental and soundscapish.
I know, I know — it all sounds like a bunch of arts-grant self-indulgence. And it very easily could have been, were it not for two factors that make it eminently listenable. The first and foremost is Holden himself, a writer with a gift for evocative imagery (“Geese on steel-white sky … Charcoal in my mind’s eye”) and thought-provoking narrative. Whether the topic at hand is a wheat field (Grain Train), a visit to Margaret Laurence’s birthplace (De’ath at Neepawa) or a young girl felled by a sniper’s bullet (Eighteen Thousand Dead in Gordon Head), Holden’s dry voice and delivery make for compelling listening. (Even though, honestly, he overdoes the whole train thing just a tad.)
Second, and only slightly less vital to the overall effect, are the compositions themselves. Samson, Tait and Fellows are among the top ranks of the city’s indie music scene, and their talent and experience raise these tracks above the sort of indistinct noodling or showboating many lesser players might supply. Whether the music they’re providing is simple and songlike (Trains of Winnipeg, Necropsy of Al Purdy), gentle and lulling (Bus North to Thompson With Les at the Wheel) or alien and ominous (Neighbours Walk Softly, Condo), the band renders its tones in subtle shades, underplaying to create textures that support and complement Holden’s tales without overshadowing them.
Don’t get me wrong: Normally, I’d still rather visit the DMV right after having a root canal than listen to a spoken-word album. But there’s something more to Trains of Winnipeg — something intriguing, something gripping, something not to be dismissed so lightly. It’s by no means a perfect album, but Holden’s definitely on the right track.