First Impressions: Canyons to Sawdust by Bryan Away

A potent undertow flows beneath the melodies, rhythms and vocals of Canyons to Sawdust, the third outing from Chicago-based singer/songwriter Bryan Away. Some may hear the echoes of such indie pop practitioners as Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens in the grooves, while others – especially those of older vintage – may hear the harmonies of Crosby & Nash riding atop arrangements reminiscent of Steely Dan. And most everyone, I think, will hear the winsomeness of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. It matters not, however. Canyons to Sawdust, due for release on July 9th, is a collection that transcends its influences, be they direct or indirect. It’s a beguiling work. 

In a sense, it’s music as therapy, with Bryan Away (aka Elliot Korte) processing the joys and heartaches of a failed relationship through song. Two short instrumentals open the album and set the stage for “The Lake,” born from a poem he sent his then-girlfriend about his hope of attaining transcendence through love: “My tears given time will become heavy rain/My fear swirling wind and the thunder my rage/The water will cycle give life and get drained/The Earth’s beating heart moving storms through its veins/It will be more than I could hope to contain/It will be love, and you will be the lake…”

“Scenes From a Marriage” imagines life in a loveless relationship, while “Dreams and Circumstance” – following another short instrumental – wallows in the depression and self-recrimination that comes when all’s said and done: “I cling to my mistakes/Then I wonder why nothing’s changed/I say it’s not too late/I deny my own fate/Then continue to wait.” Half Waif, aka Nandi Rose Plunkett, lent her talents to the tune, writing the harmonies and changing the melody to better convey the emotion of the song.

In “My Cave,” he gives up hope and turns his back on the outside world (“I cannot change/my mind’s been made/I’ll stay inside my cave”), while “A Story Arc” finds him opening his eyes – and heart – again to the possibilities inherent in life. “Scenes From a Wedding,” on the other hand, imagines life in wedded contentment, but not bliss. “Fill Me With Pride” continues in that vein, with him simultaneously decrying and coming to grips with the state of his life (“Repeat the lie to me/Till I’m fully/complicit in the crime/Fill me with pride”). “Rivers to Canyons, Saws to Sawdust,” another instrumental, conveys a wistful paralysis before “Special,” which recalls the end of the relationship, concludes things on a down note. I’d have preferred if those two tunes were flipped so that instrumentals bookended the album, but that’s me. I doubt anyone else will care.

In some respects, the songs push ashore like a tide at dusk, slowly inundating dry ground. It’s an arty album to an extent, similar in spirit (and often practice) to works by Half Waif (and Bat for Lashes, now that I think about it), yet plaintive and powerful, with Bryan Away’s heart beating strong and loud throughout.

The track list:

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