JACK BREAKFAST CD release at Clinton's (693 Bloor West), Friday (July 25). Pwyc. 416-535-9541. Rating: NNNNN
Jack Breakfast has the kind of eye for picture-perfect detail most filmmakers would kill for. You can hear it in the trembling, halting half-waltzes on his brand new Over Big Bridges disc, out on his own Troubled Cat Records. Sweeter than sipping a root beer float through two straws with your honey down at an old-timey soda fountain, the songs frame beautifully tipsy vignettes that seem swiped straight from black-and-white Capra classics. The words "Sarah" and "Dad" written on the sidewalk in sticky vanilla ice cream melt under late-afternoon sun. A girl with a bouncing ponytail throws a basketball against a backboard and laughs with her pals behind a chain-link playground fence.
Breakfast's pretty little musical fables are delivered in a hiccupy broken tenor over lilting keys, gentle acoustic strumming and nifty bare-bones flourishes (the toy-piano fill that closes Sarah And Dad is particularly effective). They take you back to a simpler time, when construction-paper hearts won your grade-six girlfriend's heart and riding the Bathurst 7C bus with your dad was an Indiana Jones-sized adventure.
The key is that the self-deprecating songwriter born David Bell manages to pull off bittersweet naïveté without becoming gag-inducingly precious.
It's because he's studied from the best, insists Breakfast.
"That's what I like in a songwriter, when the words are put together well, but not necessarily in a poncey or pretentious way. Unless you're Leonard Cohen, who pulls it off beautifully, but he's another story altogether.
"The little I understand a guy like Jacques Brel, the more I figure he must be the most amazing lyricist ever. He has a song called Amsterdam with these crazy lines about being in the port of Amsterdam with these unfaithful women while sailors stand all around. Stuff like that is just hot!"
While he claims he could never dream of achieving the musical panache of a guy like his hero Brel, or even the equally pseudonym-happy Will Oldham, whose work he deeply admires, Breakfast admits he's a lot happier with his latest opus than with anything else he's done.
"The last one, Rock And Roll Album, didn't turn out the way I hoped it would," the troubadour sighs. "It was a little too sloppy. I felt like I should've re-sung everything."
Breakfast credits the wizardry of Rogue Studios' James Paul, who co-produced the album with him, for the sound of Over Big Bridges. Paul pushed the nervous singer to lay down copious vocal takes till he managed to capture the sentiments at the heart of each story.
The record's also slightly more upbeat than Breakfast's similarly shambling last disc. The notoriously shy performer says he's always worn a suit onstage to try to boost his self-confidence. Happily, he has an awesome backing band - Sea Snakes' Jim McIntyre on drums and bassist Scott Maynard of the Quiet Revolution, whom he's dubbed the Dukes of Eglinton - to shore up his live energy.
"I have to let off a few good-natured 'Woo!'s onstage because they're all playing these sweet notes. And they're all smiling at me, and we tell each other, 'Dukes is Dukes,' and we drink together. It's like having a street gang. But don't get me wrong - they're not the original Dukes.
"The Dukes go way back. I have two friends, two brothers, and they're tiny little men. Steve's in ad sales and his brother's a lawyer, and we used to go out strutting together on Eglinton in our sport coats. We didn't do much. I think we smoked some cigarettes maybe. We never even spit on the cars on the Allen Expressway, 'cause we're gentlemen. We're Dukes."
Just like in an old-fashioned movie.