Review of Saltwater Hank’s Debut Album: Stories from the Northwest

Jade Szymanski | Contributor


Prince George’s own Saltwater Hank has released his debut album, Stories from the Northwest, this spring. The folk artist manages to emulate a spirit of simpler times in his new album, transporting you back to an age where it was typical for friends to gather and make music by a fire after a long day at work. The heart of the 8-track album is guided by the acoustics of a fiddle, a banjo, and an upright bass, bringing harmony when unified with the vocals influenced by living up in the North.

Saltwater Hank, musical stage name of Jeremy Pahl, is the flourishing solo-product of one of the members of the former band, Black Spruce Bog. Influenced from a childhood full of family members who exposed him to a deep interest of wholesome musical experiences, Saltwater Hank has taken the past years developing his own style derived from the country roots of his past.

The album opens with “Ballad of Maud Watt,” an inviting and warm beginning which sets the tone for the rest of the project. The first time listening through, the instrumentals catch your attention the most as their depth spans across a range of melodies. However, a second listen-through allows one to focus on the lyrics, which may be even more rich than the instrumentals, with a vibrant story to be told about journeys throughout old-town Canada. Opening with a strong and upbeat track, Saltwater Hank manages to still maintain a resonance of bluegrass and old-style country which can only make you wonder to what degree and variety the rest of the album will bring.

“Bog Cranberry Picking” follows as a fast-paced instrumental to differentiate itself from the opening track. While the sound of a fiddle is very distinct, and can therefore get repetitive in the listener’s head, this song proves otherwise. The unique sound of this song is produced from the vibrations of a mandolin, bringing a whole new layer of intensity to your ears! This song makes me feel like I want to sport a red gingham shirt and a long flowy denim skirt and swing dance in a bar full of men with moustaches and women who have their hair in braids. Only lasting a minute and 55 seconds, it’ll leave you wishing for more.

How could Stories from the Northwest truly call itself a folk album without a few yodels? “Coyodel #1” is a slower-paced track which makes you groove to the twang of the yodels, the strum of the bass, and Saltwater Hank’s warm vocal articulation. His deep vocals are offset by a sweeter female harmony, from his friends Naomi Kavka and Amy Blanding, which brings a refreshing break to the intensity of the male-driven vocals.

“Coyodel #2” is another slower-paced song which opens with a sinister and suspenseful feel, as if you have just walked in to an old saloon right before a shootout. Lyrics which reference crooked smiles, gunpowder, and poker games sums up this track in a nutshell, and I love it.

The story behind “Fish Cannery” brings an air of humour to the track list, as it depicts the unpleasantries of working in a fish cannery. This song has the most vocal harmonies on the album so far, and it really helps build the ambiance of community that the song is about when explaining the nuances of working in the fish biz.

Another instrumental, “Hartley Bay Rag,” may be my favourite track on the album. The upbeat and distinct fingerpicking buzzes through your body, as you can’t help but tap your foot and bop your head to the beat. The cheerful and optimistic melody will make you want to go out and marry yourself a lumberjack or gold miner.

“Moose Hunter Blues,” as expressed in the title, is a more wistful and anguished song which stems its tone from the lingering chords of the lap steel guitar. The notes seem to float in the air and stick around long after they have been played. This song would probably be best listened to while sitting by the ocean, as the mystery of the sea perfectly reflects the perplexity behind this song.

Finally, Stories from the Northwest closes with “Old Hazelton.” Feeling like you’re saying goodbye to an old friend, the placement of this track to close off the past 21 minutes flawlessly wraps up the masterful journey that Saltwater Hank has just taken you on. With a bit of a darker tone than the rest of the album, “Old Hazelton” gives you an insight into Simon Gunanoot, who was accused of murder in the early 1900s and hid from capture for 13 years, escaping to the bush. The deep spirit that runs through the veins of this track gives you the closure for the rest of the album that most musical projects fall short from.

Saltwater Hank brings the history and culture of Northern BC to life through an artistic medium that musicians can only ever dream of achieving. From the adorable woodland creatures playing music on the cover of the lyric book, to the soul of the acoustics, Stories from the Northwest is a true treasure that deserves more than one listen through to appreciate all it has to offer! Saltwater Hank is on tour this spring and will be playing in Prince George on April 14 at the Royal Canadian Legion.