Abigail Lapell – Stolen Time
Outside Music – 22 April 2022
Looking at the title of the Toronto-based Abigail Lapell’s third full-length release, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that ‘Stolen Time’ is inspired by what we’ve all lost from our suspended lives during the pandemic. While thematically and lyrically in certain songs, there seems to be an element of truth to that assumption. The title apparently stems from the musical term tempo rubato, learned by Lapell as she taught herself piano (which she plays on two tracks here). Literally, ‘stolen time’ in Italian means “expressive and rhythmic freedom by a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece.” To that end, if viewed literally, it serves as a convenient metaphor for the discontinuous cadence of life in these extraordinary times.
As a singer, Lapell is blessed with what should be considered a classic folksinger’s timbre – a sweet amalgam of Natalie Merchant, Frazey Ford, Kacy Lee Anderson, and Jacqui McShee – and as a writer, she upholds folk tradition as an honest and compassionate chronicler of the human condition. On Stolen Time, this is evident from the arrestingly beautiful and sparse opening track, Land of Plenty, which instantly joins the inventory of poignant songs exploring the theme of immigration, particularly in respect of escape from war and persecution. For lyrical inspiration, Lapell has drawn on her family’s history of fleeing the Nazis in World War II and her recent involvement in helping to sponsor a refugee from Afghanistan. Performed live off the floor on electric guitar and delivered with the dignified solemnity the subject matter should unfailingly demand, it’s a powerful way for Lapell to introduce listeners to her latest collection of songs. And, of course, knowing of the artist’s personal motivation for composing this song, as the family members that escaped the Holocaust were East European Jews, it is currently impossible to listen to it without thoughts turning to the Ukrainian diaspora, with millions attempting a perilous flight from the horrors of the senseless Russian invasion.
Also of pertinence to today’s world are the songs Scarlet Fever and All Dressed Up. As horrendous as it continues to be, the pandemic will undoubtedly feed the imaginations of songwriters for years to come, these two tracks being prime examples. The former – and, at 5:11, the longest of Stolen Time’s eleven tracks – is a heavy-hearted ballad written early in, and prompted by, the global health crisis, but instead looking at the scarlet fever epidemics of the mid- to late-19th century (and sporadic spreads since) through the eyes of a relative who contracted it as a child. (Diagnosed at the time as scarlatina, I also caught this nasty bacterial illness as a kid in the late-60s, resulting in my [knock on wood] sole experience of enforced quarantine to date.)
All Dressed Up is more directly rooted in today’s experience. Harmonising with the Montréal-based singer-songwriter Chris Velan and juxtaposed against a pretty acoustic guitar melody, Lapell delivers such lines as, All dressed up and I got nowhere to be; Wake me up when the coast is clear (interchanged in another verse with when the end is near) and, echoing the R.E.M. anthem, World is ending and I’m feeling fine, capturing the bewilderment of life on hold.
Elsewhere, amongst the profoundly human and personal subject matter, Lapell tackles matters of the heart in the gorgeous I Can’t Believe, and the gospel-flavoured piano ballad, I See Music, as well as heartache in Waterfall, and the numbing stress of grief in Sewage. Yet despite some of Stolen Time dealing with darker aspects of life, this should not detract from what is a truly lovely, reflective album that, tempo-wise, is largely at odds with its title’s inspiration by rarely exceeding a sedate larghetto.
Organic and intimate in feel, Stolen Time was produced, recorded, and mixed by former Arcade Fire drummer Howard Bilerman at Montréal’s Hotel2Tango studio and features some notable talent in support of Lapell’s impressive compositions. The songwriter is a multi-instrumentalist, so she handles guitars, keyboards, accordion, and harmonica herself, while her principal collaborators on most tracks are the rhythm section of bassist Dan Fortin (Bernice/Devon Sproule/Serena Ryder) and drummer Dani Nash (Andy Shauf/Sarah Harmer/July Talk).
Also chipping in across the eleven tracks are French horn player Pietro Amato (Arcade Fire/Snailhouse/Bell Orchestre); Christine Bougie (Bahamas/Gretchen Peters/Amy Millan) on lap steel; violist Rachael Cardiello (Zinnia); trumpeter Ellwood Epps (Matana Roberts/Pink Saliva/Stuffy Turkey); Fats Kaplin (Jack White/Nanci Griffith/John Prine); cellist Peggy Lee (Mary Margaret O’Hara/Waxwing/Wayne Horvitz); backing vocalist Katie Moore (Socalled/Patrick Watson/El Coyote), and – on the closing track – bassist Joshua Toal (Plants & Animals/Basia Bulat/The Key-Lites). Fortin, Bougie, Cardiello, and Lee appeared on Lapell’s 2019 album, Getaway.
With each successive release, Lapell has received an increasing level of domestic attention, scooping Canadian Folk Music Awards for Getaway (English Songwriter of the Year) and 2017’s Hide Nor Hair (Contemporary Album of the Year) as her stock has risen. With this latest emotionally potent offering, it seems certain that more praise will be heaped upon Lapell and her music – rightly so – and that a significant international breakthrough is now well within reach.
Stolen Time is released via Outside Music on April 22nd, on LP, CD, and as a digital download.