Take a journey through For Dreaming, thoughtfully written by my friend Maria Lavis.
Serving a voice like soft amber honey that blends oh so smoothly into your glass of aged whiskey, after four long years Roxanne Potvin is back. Her March 2016 album, For Dreaming, is a layered tour de force that takes you through a kaleidoscopic train ride unfolding in turns sweet, swaying and sunny, and in twists snapping and punchy, with a good dose of French melancholia thrown in for good measure. Roxanne’s carefully crafted lyrics pit hope against despair, and their content reflects her Canadian roots through the terrain covered, rolling from La Belle Provence through the prairies, and out to the coast. Where For Dreaming really shines is in its pairing of Potvin’s voice — filed down to a girlish nonchalance that casually flirts with ambivalence in shades of Feist, Mirah, and Keren Ann — against tumultuous lyrics reflecting the emotional roller coaster of youth. This vocal dance glides by erudite instrumentation that creates an unfolding soundscape that is at times intimate and at times expansive, but always international in its appeal.
A Ride Down the Tracks
From the first track, “I Thought I’d Miss You”, Roxanne’s innocent vocals breeze along like a girl on pink roller skates gliding down the boardwalk by the sea, disarming and charming you while the swaying grooves catch you lightly by the sleeve, whisking you along with her. The topic is the breakup, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Breakup? What breakup? It’s not so ancient history, but there are no shades of blue here. You’re grooving down the boardwalk in the sun. Your new love paints your world orange and pink. Life really is better off without that jerk. The combined effect of the track is reminiscent of Lily Allen’s tongue-in-cheek take on the breakup in “Smile”, The Cardigans’ catchy sweet pop stylings in “Lovefool”, and the warm, breezy feel of Eliza Doolittle’s “Rollerblades”.
Before you know it, in the second song, “Prairie Sunrise”, the wheels below morph, and you find yourself carried along the train tracks through an expansive and frozen plain. The kaleidoscope has churned you into the stark depths of solitude that has been there all along, but it took the frozen silence of the plains, like the silence of meditation, to turn off the noise so as to give the muted voice of the heart space to emerge. The musical style morphs too, from pop to western ballad with the soft twang of the guitar and sparse and floating acoustic elements that comfort like morphine. The ice has cracked and revealed the pain, right there, but we float above it, looking down upon it, aware, but not in it. And why not? It feels better up here. Or how about this? Let’s go to the bar on the train and order another whiskey.
Pull out your Coles Notes on Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ concept, because in “Help Each Other” Roxanne not only delivers a groovy song that stands on its own, but also nimbly shifts the perspective of the album’s vocal narrative. Just as we are lulled into emotional identification with her after the first two songs, she slips the carpet from under us by flipping the voice around from the protagonist, feeling the pain, to the friend doing the consoling. The shift in perspective creates a subtle effect that messes with us — but in a good way — lifting us up out of our previous identification with her, while at the same time consoling us for any residual blues evoked so far. Potvin is, if just for this one song, the bestie we always wish we had, plying us with comfort food in lyrics like “cherry blossoms, pizza sticks, chicken noodle when you’re sick”, and “when Tinder’s the only thing going on, we’ll go out to dance and let our hair down”. At the same time, the instrumentation nurtures us with groovy familiar beats of 60s roots rock with elements that recall the feel-good old school vibes of Nancy Sinatra (“These Boots Were Made for Walking”), Petula Clark (“Downtown”), and Quincy Jones (“Soul Bossa Nova”) with more recent indie tunes like Au Revoir Simone (“Sad Song”) and Mirah (“Of Pressure”).
In “Little Heartbreaks” Roxanne dials the tempo back down again, reminiscent of the wistful style we heard back in “Prairie Sunrise”, while simultaneously taking us up and out on an ambient and lyrical journey into orbit. The song combines the twang of a country guitar with ambient, electronic elements evocative of the fields of sound we find ourselves in with Sigur Rós, The Postal Service (i.e., “We Will Become Silhouettes”), and Freelance Whales (i.e., “Broken Horse” and “Ghosting”).
In “I Wouldn’t Tell You That” the kaleidoscope shifts again as we head towards the heart of the album. The tempo perks up and takes us back riding the tracks again. Roxanne delivers lyrics here of candid and starkly evocative poetry:
There’s a hole in my chest like a cave with bats and beetles, no sun, only shade.
I don’t know what it means but it’s there when you leave.
Let’s keep it light hearted and dumb
I’ll secretly hope you stick around.
Keep an eye on the door,
hang out where you might show.
A confidential fact. I want you.
But I wouldn’t tell you that.
The elements of this song just work. They work in that subtle way, like how ‘coconut and lime’ or ‘ginger and coriander’ mingle and sing on your tongue. If you give this song the headphones in a dark room treatment, be careful, as — out from under the snappy beat, terse lyrics, hovering horns, and pulsing guitar — longing itself, like a dark swan, may silently float out of the shadows of the melody, catch you by surprise, and settle on your heart. And, with that, even if you live in the perpetual winter of romantic cynicism, you will remember again, feel it even, if only for a moment, that glorious feeling of falling into that amber orb of love…and the peculiar pleasure of being snared.
In “The March”, Roxanne allows herself to slide back into some of her old sonic R&B territory, while keeping the sound fresh with elements such as French horn and subtle electronics. We feel the emotive theme of the album here with the lyrics indicating the dynamic tension of the heart’s desire to go back to that old love again pitted against its own need to keep on moving forward towards yet unfulfilled dreams. Roxanne allows her voice the freedom to meander more through the honeyed fields of her expressive vocal rage in this piece. The result is a sweet oasis to stop in and unwind.
The kaleidoscope subtly shifts, yet again, into a new soundscape with “Figuring it Out”. We are carried along with that groovy 60s musical style, layered with eclectic modern electronic elements reminiscent Beck mashups. The smooth tone of Roxanne’s vocals are similar to a stiff drink of Sheryl Crow infused with a dash of bitters that make you sit up in your seat because you realize Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morisette just walked into the room. The result is a mix that that goes down spiked, but easy.
In “Ni Toi Non Plus” the twist of the kaleidoscope clicks with a shift back to the land of the cave with bats Roxanne touched on earlier in the album, but now the narrative is fully French. This linguistic turn not only demonstrates Roxanne’s proficiency in either language, but also acts as a safety buffer to accessing the multiple depths available to be explored in that darkness. For those willing and able to make the translation we find ourselves losing balance and dancing along the edge of a precipice with an eerie semblance in to the feel of Björk’s epic “Hyperballad”. With soft sand in her voice reminiscent of Keren Ann’s nonchalance that belies the chasm below, Roxanne pulls us into the free fall of oblivion that lurks under the loss of love.
As the first sweet notes of the guitar of the title track, “For Dreaming”, sing into our ears, we shift again, reassured that perhaps the previous song was just a dream. We breathe a sign of relief that we are still here, and are glad to wake within this ballad, even if it’s within another dream. It’s like waking up in the morning after a nightmare to the smell of coffee and comfort food with a tone like pancakes, and maple syrup on the ears. Sweet, slow, reassuring, and autobiographical (whether artistic license of real), Potvin walks us through her days serenading the perennial beauty of the simple things in life, and revealing in its nomadic songlines the soul of a gypsy heart.
As we roll into the final station with the song, “In Your Sleep”, Roxanne kindly sings us a lullaby before letting us go. She plays with perspective here again, shifting her voice to address us directly again, but now as her lover. So here we are, after an entire album where we’ve been identifying with her in talking about the schmucks that have hurt us in love, now we find that we have become, ourselves, the schmuck! Nevertheless, Roxanne reassures us that, even though we can be a jerk sometimes, she’s no saint herself, so we are understood and still loved. It’s a subtle last twist, which wraps up an album with songs that stand on their own but also work together to give the album that extra layer of narrative that makes for a sweet and tidy package that delivers the musical and emotive goods from start to finish.
Statement after the Ride
Roxanne Potvin covers a lot of geography in For Dreaming. That’s her prerogative as a Canadian, but unlike many albums that just flip around, the stylistic shifts from track to track are not forced here. From the bright, candy-striped grooves that lure us in at the outset to the darkling lavender hues of mélancolie that infiltrate the album like stiff spirits in our pink lemonade, she reminds us that, not only will she always carry a stash of R&B to hit us up with, but she also has a few other tricks up her sleeve. While there is eclectic diversity to the album in style and instrumentation, Roxanne’s voice—that bright golden strand—weaves like a satin ribbon throughout, lacing its varied elements together into a unified and comforting whole.
Served up in a drink, For Dreaming is silky smooth. And, like a drug that creeps up on you, the more you take, the deeper you go, and the more you want. It just might leave you standing out on the edge yourself. Watch out. This is how addictions start and who wouldn’t want to drink a case of this? So, here’s a toast to dreaming that it isn’t another four years before Potvin serves us up our next kaleidoscopic fix.
Watch a beautiful video by Southern Souls of the band and I playing I Thought I’d Miss You!