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Albums Of The Week: Murray A. Lightburn | Once Upon A Time In Montreal

This time it's personal — The Dears frontman stays in crooner mode for this fine and mellow slate of jazz-tinged songs inspired by the life of his late, estranged father.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE:Once Upon A Time In Montreal is the third solo album from The Dears’ frontman Murray A. Lightburn — and the musical equivalent of a biopic about his late father, a jazz musician from Belize who moved to Montreal via New York to reconnect with his teenage sweetheart. They were  married for 56 years, until he died in April 2020 in a Quebec nursing home where he’d been living with Alzheimer’s.

Despite growing up with the man, Lightburn — the youngest brother of three — says his father “was almost a complete stranger to me. I could almost count the conversations we had, and none of them were very meaningful. I had to deduce that our happy moments were listening to Expos games together. I never knew how he felt about my career or the things I’d achieved — all of which I got from him.”

Lightburn’s father was a saxophonist who worshipped John Coltrane. There’s no hard bop on Once Upon A Time In Montreal, but it does feature an array of Montreal jazz players. Like this album’s predecessor, 2019’s Hear Me Out, Lightburn is in full crooner mode, distilling the passion and intensity of The Dears into gentle arrangements that feature an orchestral section, drawing on the late-’60s and early-’70s folk, jazz and pop of Dionne Warwick, Nick Drake, Bill Withers, Serge Gainsbourg, Al Green, etc. While the influences might be obvious, the end result is singular and without peer.

After the patriarch passed, Murray’s 86-year-old mother started revealing tender details of their life together. “She painted a portrait of a man that I had never met in my life,” says the songwriter. “I then pieced the story together.” He didn’t yet know he was writing a narrative album. The first batch of songs were written as part of the grieving process — keeping busy, in the way that is most natural for a songwriter with an internationally acclaimed 25-year career. Some other projects intervened — including the original soundtrack for I Like Movies, which debuted to raves at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival — before Lightburn doubled down and finished.

Once Upon A Time In Montreal was produced by Lightburn’s old friend Howard Bilerman (Leonard Cohen, Godspeed You! Black Emperor). It features Dears drummer Jeff Luciani and an array of Montreal jazz players, including Frank Lozano, who delivered a soaring sax solo on the title track, which for Murray conjured the ghost of his father, who — after abandoning music when he became a born-again Christian — had picked up his sax again in the 2000s to play on two Dears songs. As soon Lozano finished, “I knew it was a 400-foot home run,” says Lightburn. “I knew it was something that would hold. I knew also at that moment how much my dad would love this record. Even if he never told me, I know that it would be on repeat in his car if he was still with it and driving around. That was my motivation — to make something I know he would love. It’s not indie rock, you know?”