Evan J Cartwright is a Toronto-based musical polymath who is best known as the go-to drummer and collaborator for a variety of top-notch indie acts, the best known of them being The Weather Station. For his first full-length release under his own name, bit by bit, he’s billed as a singer songwriter, but that’s a bit of an understatement. About the only comparison I can think of for Cartwright is Andrew Bird, because like Bird he’s highly literate, both musically and lyrically, with a philosophical bent and a vision that’s both highly personal and universal.
Also like Bird, Cartwright’s music blends singer-songwriter, folk, pop and jazz ideas very effectively. But that’s the end of the comparison, for Cartwright as a musician is singular. As a drummer, his songs quite naturally deal with the concept of time, and on bit by bit he pairs the themes of time and the unknowability of the human heart to quietly spectacular effect.
Here’s what he says about these songs:
“Many of the lyrics circle, and try to give a name to the illegible space between human beings. ‘i DON’t know’ celebrates the fact that we will never truly understand what love is. Its message is one of assurance. It says that we can never really touch love, and that is OK. ‘and you’ve got nobuddy’ refers to life’s great tragedy: that we are unable to read each others’ experiences, and in reaction to this, we separate ourselves.”
To his circular lyrics and experimental arrangements Cartwright adds the element of musique concrete (which seems to have become quite a thing this year), nestling these songs amid field recordings of birdsong, church bells and other ambient sounds he’s collected over the past few years of touring. They’re not random, either, but play into the album’s overall theme and structure.
In his own drumming, acoustic guitar playing and singing, Cartwright is accompanied by members of a couple of related Montreal experimental indie bands, Ambroise and Lune Très Belle: particularly Eugénie Jobin and Frédérique Roy, who lend their beguiling vocals to the first song, “walk u through it.” Cartwright’s Chet Baker-inspired vocal timing illuminates this post-modern love song that takes the form of one partner asking a new love interest’s permission to take ever more intimate steps as he teaches them to dance and sing. Jobin and Roy contribute immeasurably to the song’s intimate and hesitant feel with their backing vocals that subtly echo Cartwright’s lead; as do other members on flute and cello.
Also contributing throughout the album is a string quartet: Eline Homzy on violin, Rachael Cardiello viola, and Eliza Nieme and Androw Downing on cellos. The art song “she’s a bird” is perhaps the most thematically coherent song here, a love song to a lover he expects to fly away. The through-composed art song “i DON’t know” is an impressive vocal performance, accompanied by the full string quartet.
The most engaging song may be the first single “and you’ve got nobuddy.” Cartright accompanies himself with some simple guitar, plus some subtle electronics and ambient sounds, with a lovely cello-guitar duet in the outro. The song may offer the clearest statement of the album’s theme in lines like “And through we try to do what’s right / intentions run off in the night.” This video immediately captured my attention for its clever staging. Cartwright mimes the vocals as he plays drums, apparently for a different song altogether, because “and you’ve got nobuddy” is drumless. It’s no mean feat, on the order of simultaneously patting your head while rubbing your tummy and reciting the Gettysburg Address.
It’s followed by the most self-consciously arty and experimental of the tracks, the spoken word piece “more! says the heart, breaking.” Evan intones a hearbreaking poem about the impossibility of seeing into another’s heart, as a woman, I think Jobin, interrupts and echoes the words in damningly relevant ways. It’s an impressive and sly bit of vocal choreography.
The final actual song, “impossibly blue” sums up the entire album’s themes. Over gently plucked guitars and a lightly droning organ Cartwright sings a few brief lines like “The impossible truth of time / beats its rhythm / in a crooked line / the line that’s between me and you …”
Cartwright has created a clever sonic structure to hold all these compositions together. The album opens with a brief classical sounding theme by the string quartet, and all of the songs bleed into one another with no gaps. The sound of cathedral carillons and birdsongs fill the interstitial spaces and also pop up within the songs. Toward the end of “she’s a bird” after the ringing of the church bells we hear the song of a cardinal, and in the improvised coda featuring Cartwright on drums and Eliza Niemi on cello, the drum flams echo the cadence of the cardinal’s song. Throughout, fingerpicking patterns, drum fills, organ lines and more echo that church bell rhythm until they’re summed up in the final two tracks.
As a whole, bit by bit is unutterably melancholy and yet somehow uplifting, speaking as it does to the common human condition. Isn’t that what all good art does, whether painting or storytelling or sculpture or music? It reminds us that time inexorably passes, that we are impenetrably separated from all of our fellow human beings, including those we love the most, and that only our art gives us a way to fully comprehend and partially overcome those realities.
(Idee Fixe, 2022)