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Ron Hynes – Stealing Genius

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Band: Ron Hynes
Album: Stealing Genius
Genre: Singer Songwriter, Traditional, Country, Folk, Newfoundland
Influences: Life
Produced by: Paul Mills
Mixed by: Paul Mills and John “Beetle” Bailey
Mastered by: Chad Irschick at Inception sound Toronto
Review By: Lee Mellor




“He’s a Newfoundland songwriting legend!”

Those were the first words I ever heard about St. John’s’ own Ron Hynes — a veteran troubadour whose eleventh album Stealing Genius was released last year on Canadian folk label Borealis.

Famed for penning “Sonny’s Dream” in 1976, which was subsequently recorded by Christy Moore, Stan Rogers, Valdy and Great Big Sea, in his sixty-first year, Hynes continues to spin earnest, moving yarns with a distinctly Canadian character.  Though I intend to work my way back through his entire catalogue, I consider it a blessing that 2011’s Stealing Genius is the first Hynes album I have listened to: it allows me to be more objective, and to consider the recording as a stand alone piece of art, rather than another chapter in a long and respected career.

The first thing that struck me was the vivid imagery that Hynes’s voice and words conjured up: sea-shaken houses (to steal Dylan Thomas’s genius) grey light pouring in through front room windows, and skate blades carving up the ice.  These are songs with a capital “S”. Artistically, they are operating in a different league than 95% of their contemporaries.

This is especially true in terms of lyrics.  Though I offer a smattering of examples of Hynes’s poetic genius, let me preface this review by saying that I could pull almost any line from these tunes to illustrate this point.  If Hynes has any flaw in his songwriting, it’s that it takes a number of listens for his melodies to stick in your head.  Then again, this isn’t Top 40 pop music, nor is it attempting to be.

The dominant themes of Stealing Genius are the effects of financial devastation on marriages and families, American-Canadian relations, and the tyranny of dreams.  Hynes paints a determinist portrait of reality, where everyday people do their best to hang on, taking pleasure from small comforts in a world dictated by the elements, economy, and the slow creep of time.  His modus operandi is to search for inspiration in the works of his fellow Newfoundlanders, be they authors or poets like Donna Morrissey and Randall Maggs, or collaborating songwriters.  Hence, the modest album title Stealing Genius.

“Blood and Bones”, the opening track, sets the stage perfectly.  Inspired by Donna Morrissey’s novel What They Wanted, it is by no means the best song on the album, but perhaps the most appropriate to begin:

“You can’t pawn blood and bones… I remember clear to yesteryear, our last day in the cove/As the ocean died like late night embers in the stove/We watched him slowly slip away, dying deep inside/Friends and brothers gone away, nothing left to him but pride/She crossed the floor and she lifted up his chin (and she said)/ ‘Do I have to say these words again — You’ve done your best…’”

As an aside, in true east coast fashion, Hynes often anthropomorphizes the sea, so that it becomes a central character in his stories.  With the line “We watched him slowly slip away” it is unclear at first whether Hynes it talking about the tide, a character, or both.  This is a testament to his power as a storyteller.  Track 2, “House”, continues in the footsteps of its predecessor, only its string section works better than “Blood and Bones’s” saxophone.

“This house leaks in heavy rains/Moans and groans in hurricanes/But what comfort it would be/If you would sit and talk with me/In this house/And for all that we invested here/We settled in, we nested here/So sad the days sail slowly by/With no sun in the harbour sky…”

The standout ballad on the first half of Stealing Genius is the Donna Morrissey inspired “My Father’s Ghost”  The production is sparer here, with Hynes’s acoustic guitar comfortably carrying the first verse, Tom Leighton’s accordion and Burke Carroll’s pedal steel slowly bleeding in to create a hair-raising backdrop to a tale of death, apparitions and aging:

“He was sitting on the stairway and my heart filled up with dread/His hands were clenched his clothes were drenched, I knew that he was dead…The dawn was fairly breaking as she headed down the path/ where the water crashed across the rocks with all its rage and wrath/But her heart had gone to ashes and the ice chewed through her bones/and her footsteps fell like granite as she came back home…She stood inside the doorway and she turned towards the cove/She took down the blessed crucifix and she burned it in the stove/and we all stood in the kitchen like travellers in the rain/Waiting on the platform to board some lonely train/All that was sixty years ago, my mother’s in the ground/Brother, sister moved away and left me the house and land/And I sell my socks and sweaters to the tourists from away/There’s a monthly old age pension and it keeps the wolf at bay/And I count the days…”

Words like that should make Leonard Cohen stand up and take notice.

“La Coeur de la Mer” is another good song along the same lines as the first three, but track 6 “Love and Hunger” with its slow train beat, dark minor chords, electric guitar arpeggios and pedal steel is particularly strong, comparable to “My Father’s Ghost.”

“When I’m Over You” is the first occasion where Hynes’s vocals are supported by harmonies, which is unfortunate, but they’re a definite asset in his choruses.  Paul Mills’s dobro makes its first appearance in “30 for 60”, a waltz with a clever rhyme schemes that can’t help but put a smile on your face. This number, along with the banjo supported “Judgment”, acapella “All For the USA”, and washboard vibe of “Home From the USA/Yanks” provide a variety of styles which keep the listener engaged.

“Judgment”, a story from the perspective of Jesse James’s assassin Robert Ford, is a particular favourite (though I must admit a bias for cowboy songs):

“I got a whole world of judgment on me now/I am cursed, called a craven coward/But this I will avow, I treasure my notoriety/I’m the man no man wants to see/Still it’s better to be famous for the wrong I done tonight/Than to be nobody all my life…”

“Sawchuk” is as beautiful and interesting a song about a hockey hero you’re likely to hear.  The album concludes with “Elena’s Lullaby”, Hynes’s serenade to his once baby daughter, reworked with a string section.  In a disc that plunges us into the day to day reality of human struggle, this final number allows us to exit with a much needed sense of reassurance.

To recap, I was told that Ron Hynes was a “Newfoundland songwriting legend.”  Having heard Stolen Genius, I can see why.  This is not about the man — it’s about his stories.  Over the years, they have collectively formed a patchwork tapestry which has become his legend.  Is that not the path where all the great ones have tread?


THE GOOD: Hynes’s lyrics are ingenious on many levels: description, substance, and (when he puts the effort in) the Newfoundlander’s adroit rhymes are capable of making the most gifted rapper bow his head and shuffle home, pants hanging down.  The production is, for the most part, solid, and at times reminiscent of an east coast Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings, with horn and string sections that wisely do not overstep their boundaries.  Hynes’s voice, though probably not considered classically good, is convincing and laden with wonderful  idiosyncrasies — the kind of uniqueness we might encounter in a Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or again, Willie.  Instrumentally, every player on this album is hovering around the top tier, not because they’re showcasing unfathomable skills, but because they’re rhythmic and tasteful.  In particular, I dig the Hammond organ and pedal steel.


THE BAD: As competent as the saxophone playing on Stealing Genius is, the smooth urbane feel the instrument conveys is at odds with the literary landscape of Hynes’s songs.  This is not the fault of the musician Pat Carey, rather a misstep in the production.  Also, non-commercial or not, a key component of songwriting is memorable hooks, generally absent from this collection of otherwise brilliant ballads.  Also, although we shouldn’t expect it in this genre, I can’t help but think that a greater variety of tempos would have given this album an extra little boost.


THE UGLY: The situations Hynes forces the listener to confront: poverty, heartbreak and loss.  Fortunately, his way with words easily transforms this “ugliness” into beauty.


Ron on Reverbnation
Official website

By: Lee Mellor