Ah, time keeps rolling on, and while I drive around and work on other things, I often have plenty of time to listen to music. While I listen and do other things, I compose reviews in my head. But when it comes to finding time to actually write the reviews and post them, well, time just slips away. Therefore, I offer these parting words for 2011, words about some tremendous releases that have been heard much in the Music Spectrum office but weren’t reviewed. These releases all happen to work within in the Folk-influenced American Rock section of the Spectrum, ranging from the country-jam-blues of the Donkeys, the mysterious art of the Cave Singers, the singer-songwriter with a band of Matt Duke, the folkified rock of the Feelies, and the ensemble piece of the Belle Brigade.
The Donkeys’ Born With Stripes
When Born With Stripes opens with “Don’t Know Who We Are,” the Donkeys channel a Wilco soulful approach to folk-inspired rock. Yet, the Donkeys don’t show a core of twang that Wilco—AltCountry to their roots—shows. Instead, the Donkeys hint at the blues even while playing with a jam-like feel. Never letting themselves go into extended vamps, nonetheless you could line them up next to My Morning Jacket’s more plaintive moments. “I Like the Way You Walk” doesn’t have a true chorus except for an instrumental break that makes my heart skip a beat. The title track is a gang vocal stomp jam. Even as the Beatles got inspired by India, so “West Coast Raga” and “East Coast Raga” play the blues through Eastern charm and instrumentation. “Ceiling Tan” could’ve been culled from Camper Van Beethoven’s psychedelic eclectic strung out visions. For these reasons, the Donkeys have been played quite often this year, especially while on long car trips.
The Cave Singers’ No Witch
No Witch by the Cave Singers begins with the folky, chant-like of “Gifts and the Raft,” completed by a laidback fiddle. “Swim Club” takes things up just a notch for a bluegrass-in-the-background kind of slow romp. But by track three, “Black Leaf,” the Cave Singers bring out the dark electric guitar for a bluesy ride that sounds partly inspired by drumcircles, partly inspired by odd tribal shouts. It spins around like a Jim Morrison dream coming alive in a new form. Later “All Land Crabs and Divinity Ghosts” jumps the train like a country-tune taken through Californian valleys. Like the Donkeys, the Cave Singers don’t necessarily go on extended jams, but you get the feeling that there’s more jam here than meets the eye. Meanwhile, I also hear the earlier, folky sounds of Alberta Cross. Listen especially to the rocking forward “Clever Creatures.” I also ought to mention the great joy of the harmonica-led, soulful jamboree of “Haystacks,” which feels Stonesy as the choir of voices joins in.
The Cave Singers
Matt Duke’s One Day Die
The band Live wrote a paean to suburban life, although with a title like “#%&!town,” I suppose it wasn’t a celebratory psalm lauding the town. Yet, I have always heard it as an ache for the suburban soul lost in the sameness, achievement culture, and plastering over of the deeper problems. That’s probably why then I hear a similarity in Matt Duke’s much toned down paean to his hometown called “M.L.T.” (Mt. Laurel Township).
While musically it comes from a singer-songwriter vein, and while having less vinegar, lyrically Duke is covering similar territory as Live—aching for the people lost in the borders of the town. Both songs cry out for the souls of people.
The rest of Duke’s One Day Die works in the Folk-influenced American Rock, as Duke’s singer-songwriter style gets filled in by the band. The album is strongest on the tracks that are completed in this way, such as the urgency of “Kangaroo Court,” the clanging “Seriously, Indulge Me,” and the upbeat, Ellis Paul-like road song “Needle and Thread.”
The Feelies’ Here Before
In 1988, I got the Feelies’ Only Life. At first listen, it seemed a cassette ready for turning up just a bit too loud while stretched out on the bed in semi-consciousness, the volume and vibe keeping you from actually sleeping, but the hypnotic folk rhythms rocking you into a very relaxed state. Then, though, I discovered that if you turned up the volume a few more degrees, Only Life made great driving music as the volume brings out an urgency in the music that at first blush feels extremely laidback.
Turn now to 2011 when the Feelies returned after a 10 year hiatus. Here Before again lulls you into the sense that it is made for zoning out (“Nobody Knows”). Yet, the fuzz guitar solos and the well-placed drum fills mean that you can also crank the album to rock you forward (“Time is Right”). “Should Be Gone” chimes with a light twang, swaying side to side down the road with its light touch. Folk-punk rules the day on “When You Know,” the vocal line drawn out over the propulsive rhythms. “Later On” channels the Church in one of their acoustic moments, as if taken from a Steve Kilbey side project.
The Belle Brigade The Belle Brigade
Probably one of the reasons I didn’t write about the Belle Brigade’s The Belle Brigade earlier was that I was disappointed in its disjointed feeling. After a front porch sing-along start on “Sweet Louise,” the band comes into their own on “Where Not to Look for Freedom,” a driving, Gospel-tinged, bluesy twang rock. Yet, while the rest of The Belle Brigade is fine work—recalling the Decemberists at times for its way of incorporating folk elements, it never really matches the intensity of “Where Not to Look for Freedom.”
Now, exploring “Where Not to Look for Freedom” deeper, it could certainly be a song that points to the freedom of the Gospel—the promise of being saved from our sins through Jesus. There’s talk about finding “a free feeling,” “where I am not afraid of revealing,” which could be interpreted as what it means to be able to freely admit your sins to a God who offers free forgiveness.
Yet, the song then goes on to distant itself from any interpretation I might offer as a pastor:
Well, I’ve been looking real hard for a teacher
But they better not be looking for me
‘Cause I never found one in a preacher, oh Lord
Anyone that says that they see the way I should be.
In other words, I can’t be trusted if I say that the truth of Jesus is the truth. Yet, how I can not speak about the freedom I have found in Jesus when it seems to answer the very struggle faced in this song?
Where not to look for freedom
When you’re inside your prison
And you’re the only warden
Tell me where to look for freedom
So I guess I’ll conclude by saying that I don’t intend to ever “force feed” the Gospel on others. Instead, I’m speaking about the truth that I have found in Christ, and as far as I can see, it is the only truth that really provides that freedom we’re all longing for.
The Belle Brigade
Warner Brothers Records