Review: Chris Antonik - Better For You

Antonik's sophomore outing is an early contender for the year's best lists
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Toronto-based Chris Antonik seemed to come out of nowhere with his remarkably assured 2010 debut. Now he's back with a follow up that's nothing short of an amazing artistic leap.

Better For You retains the blue core that informed his earlier effort, but here Antonik expands his palette significantly.  Things start out impressively enough with "Long Way To Go," a bluesy number with Antonik's gruff vocals over a chunky rhythm accented with squalling harp and punchy horns.  But "Turn To Shine," the second track, is southern rock with a hint of Memphis soul and a whiff of gospel, not too far from the Allmans at their best, with Josh Williams, a constant throughout on organ and piano, handling lead vocals.  "Come From A Good Place,' a slow-building, uplifting anthem of empowerment, features soul-stirring vocals by Shakura S'Aida, while the moody "Broken Man" introduces Mike Mattison, yet another vocalist.

Big Walter Hortonorton'Hh's "Have A Good Time," the disc's only cover, is a relaxed acoustic duet, Williams once again handling vocals and blowing some fine harmonica over and around Antonik's nicely articulated guitar.  "Shake Me Down," though, marking Antonik's return to the mic, is a simmering, slow-burner reminiscent of John Mayer.  The title track treads much the same territory, shimmery with hushed vocals and stinging guitar.

The energy level gets a boost with the swaggering "Nothing I Can Do," driven by honking brass and William's impassioned vocals.  Antonik handles the rest, including "Tell Me What You Need," another excursion into moody, whispery rock, the funky "So Tired," and the equally atmospheric "I'll Help You Through" that completes the collection.  There's not a weak tune in the bunch - Antonik has clearly taken his time, and care and craft are evident at every turn.  Arrangements are lush and richly layered yet retain a satisfyingly warm, organic feel.

Apart from the songs themselves, highlights are many.  Antonik is an extremely versatile guitarist, varying tone and attack throughout.  His playing is economical but exceptionally expressive, and Josh Williams is every bit his match on keys, mixing Hammond and Wurlitzer organs to provide richly layered cushions of sound.  The horn section is exemplary, with powerful yet nuanced arrangements courtesy of Richard Underhill.  Bassist Andrew Taylor and drummer Chris Chiarelli have been together for years and have emerged as one of the finest rhythm sections around, and additional guests include Steve Marriner on harmonica, the wonderful Suzie Vinnick on background vocals, and pianist Julian Fauth.  Production is exemplary, and Antonik's attention to detail extends to a nicely designed package.

An absolutely top-notch effort in every way, this one's an early contender for recording of the year.   Highly recommended!