ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
April 27, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Won't take long for you to realize this ain't your average Harmed Brothers record. Unless what you expected was rumbling feedback and distortion. Even when the instrumentation kicks in for "Greetings From Mardi Gras", you've got piano, a click track and a suffering violin. God bless evolution. It's what keeps a band alive, what prevents an act from shriveling into their own tribute band. A full four minutes into "Greetings", a mumbly and introspective drone erupts momentarily into a full force squall, with fuzz guitars, pounding drum and Missed my turn in Tennessee / You woke up tired and angry / Your blood red eyes they spell it out / I packed my shit and I moved out ...
Harmed Brothers haven't gone all Kid A on us. The sound is still based on their acoustic musicianship, but from singing to choices in arrangement, their self titled collection sets out to announce a new direction. "Adopt a Highway" is a revelation, a song that refuses to settle into easy cliche. Even lyrically, there are no cheap choices: Go on hit the road / Hit it while it's worth while / Let it swallow you whole / Like you are an aspirin. Guitars ring out an indelibly tuneful chime, more resonant of Athens, GA than Portland, OR. It's a tune that both embraces and resents the dust we swallow during a life spent in motion. Oh yeah we'll be broke but we'll never be broken.
I tend to distrust an artist who dusts off older material on a new release. And some of the songs on Harmed Brothers are resurrected from earlier recordings. It's justified, however, in a case when a band is taking such a deliberately new approach to its craft. One of the record's more striking moments, "Cryin' Shame", is practically reborn from its strummy origins on the band's 2010 lo-fi debut. This new recording owes as much to piano as to acoustic guitar, and strings contribute an emotional weight and dimension to the beautifully sad piece: Well cigarette machines / They empty up the dreams of plenty gone to waste / And the ashtray is overflowing with all the dreams that I threw away.
Strings, horns, atmospherics and recurring guitar squall all serve to lure the LP away from its acoustic trappings. "Elvis the Lion" devotes much of its instrumental space to aggressive electric moments, made more striking for the hushed acoustic moments that are interspersed. On "Life In Progress", the distortion is barely contained: I'm thinking about giving it up / Cause this dream don't reciprocate love.
But the Harmed Brothers are just as good at restrained and pretty. "Don't Wanna Be Lonesome" is simply a moving and soulful shuffle, brought to church with a lovely horn arrangement. Vocals are traded from song to song, very distinct one from the other but never distracting in their alternating perspective.
I've mentioned previously here that, if I belong anywhere in the world it might be Southern Oregon where I grew up. I only mention this because the Harmed Brothers hail from various Beaver State locales, including beautiful little Cottage Grove. Portland based Fluff & Gravy is releasing their new collection. In previewing all this newborn music, I'm often in search of something that sounds like home. Harmed Brothers is only occasionally happy, always genuine and consistently musically rewarding. It's no Metal Machine Music, but rather a natural and inspired evolution that better recalls Dave Simonett's decision to step away from Trampled By Turtles' crowd pleasing turbo 'grass ravers for more more nuanced musical fields. It's the sound of a band sparking a new fire, taking an unplanned turn off the beaten and familiar path.
Also this week, I'm not a rabid fan of live music on record though I've apparently peppered this Episode with the stuff. Robert Earl Keen sounds more alive than he has in years on his Waylon take, and Old Crow Medicine Show absolutely tear into a Dylan cut. And speaking of covers, Chris Stapleton takes ownership of a track previously made famous by Willie.
- Matt Woods, "Johnny Ray Dupree" Matt Woods Manifesto (Woods, 11)
- Deslondes, "Muddy Water" Hurry Home (New West, 17)
- Pokey LaFarge, "Riot In the Streets" Manic Revelations (Rounder, 17)
- Jake LaBotz, "How I Wish She Was Mine" Sunnyside (Hi-Style, 17) D
- Matt Urmy, "Renaissance Rodeo" Out Of the Ashes (Red Light Library, 17) D
- Lillie Mae, "Loaner" Forever and Then Some (Third Man, 17)
- Bonnevilles, "Machine Born To Think" Listen For the Tone (Alive Naturalsound, 17) D
- Shinyribs, "Trouble Trouble" I Got Your Medicine (Mustard Lid, 17)
- Joseph Huber, "16-10" Suffering Stage (Huber, 17)
- Left Arm Tan, "Wish" Jim (LAT, 10)
- Robert Earl Keen, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way (live)" Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings (Blackbird, 17)
- Chris Stapleton, "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning" From a Room: Vol. 1 (Mercury, 17)
- Angaleena Presley, "Motel Bible" Wrangled (Mining Light, 17)
- Bruce Robison, "Paid My Dues (w/Jack Ingram)" Back Porch Band (Motel Time, 17)
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Obviously 5 Believers (live)" 50 Years of Blonde On Blonde (OCMS, 17)
^ Harmed Brothers, "Cryin' Shame" Harmed Brothers (Fluff & Gravy, 17)
- Have Gun Will Travel, "Standing At the End of the World" Fiction Fact or Folktale (This Is American Music, 13)
- Vandoliers, "Rolling Out" The Native (State Fair, 17)
- Justin Townes Earle, "There Go a Fool" Kids in the Street (New West, 17)
- Jason Eady, "Black Jesus" Jason Eady (Old Guitar, 17)
- Amanda Anne Platt & Honeycutters, "Birthday Song" Amanda Anne Platt & Honeycutters (Organic, 17) D
- Sam Outlaw, "Two Broken Hearts" Tenderheart (Six Shooter, 17)
- John Moreland, "Sallisaw Blue" Big Bad Luv (4AD, 17)
- Benjamin Booker, "Right On You" Witness (ATO, 17)
- Old 97s, "Those Were the Days" Graveyard Whistling (ATO, 17)
- Sadies, "God Bless the Infidels" Northern Passages (Yep Roc, 17)
- John Doe, "Giant Step Backward" Keeper (Yep Roc, 11)
- Steel Woods, "I'm Gonna Love You" Straw in the Wind (Woods, 17)
- Mavis Staples, "You Are Not Alone (live, w/Jeff Tweedy)" I'll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration (Blackbird, 17) D
- Over the Rhine, "Show Me" Ohio (Great Speckled Dog, 03)