Album Review – Elephant Revival’s ‘Petals’

“When words fail…music speaks.”

That phrase is what the Elephant Revival uses to help describe their music. It’s a phrase that works, because the songwriting found on their albums is deep, tapping into tough emotions and describing the human experience through devoted metaphors. The quintet is made up of Bonnie Paine (washboard, djembe, musical saw, stompbox); Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle); Charlie Rose (banjo, pedal steel, guitar, horns, cello, double bass); Dango Rose (double bass, mandolin, banjo); and Daniel Rodriguez (guitar, banjo, double bass). With more than four albums under their belt, the band has found their groove in lyrics and melodies, and with a devoted listen, you can hear the music speak on the band’s newest album, Petals.

The album begins with the love song “Hello You Who.” Bonnie leads the vocals here, singing greetings to the one who holds her close and dances with her. The song establish’s the band’s folk style well, with a good mix of acoustic guitar, fiddle, and upright bass behind the vocals. “Peace Tonight” has a great, catchy melody with a mix of guitars, fiddle, and pedal steel along with more vocal harmonies from the band. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who seems to be praying for the people around her. She wishes them, no matter who they are or what they’re dealing with, to have peace as the day ends and night falls.

The title track has more electric guitar and percussion in a production that bounces between tempo and styles throughout. It creates a bit of a jarring listen, but shows some versatility in the group as musicians, who are committed to creating a different sonic atmosphere within each song. “On and On” is one of the more vague songs on the album, but it works as the listener is able to draw their own interpretation from the lyrics. I interpret the song about people committing themselves to a lie, and carrying that lie with them in public while it secretly eats at them.

The steel guitar and fiddle are brilliantly showcased on “Raindrops.” A quiet, spacial production that builds to a great fiddle solo, the melody moves with the lyrics. The song encourages one to take a step back and relax amid the chaos of a storm in life. Elephant Revival frequently use water as symbol throughout the songs, which goes along with the album art depicts a woman rowing a boat. Water can symbolize several things: It could be calming/refreshing, a symbol for new life or the beginning of a new cycle, or the flow of emotions and representation that things change. And in the cases where water shows up on the album, it symbolizes calming or a changing journey.

Elephant Revival also use the symbol of changing seasons as a metaphor for breakups in “Season Song.” Through the feeling of living things dying in the fall and the cold of winter, into the spring, the season of rebirth, the lyrics clearly deal with overcoming the end of a relationship. With a faint Celtic influence in their writing and production, the Elephant Revival tap into that with “Furthest Shore.” A journey through water as the story tells of a boy who is separated from his mother. The upright bass and fiddle are present in the song as well as some Irish accents in the vocals.

Water pops up again with “Sea Monster.” It’s more of country song with the banjo and fiddle in the mix. Lyrically, the song depicts a search for something, and the ups and downs of success, with the temptations of the Siren’s song luring the searcher away from the goal. With many songs dealing with symbolic metaphors, “When I Fall” sounds a bit out place. The song is rather basic, lyrically, skirting around spiritual themes without fleshing out any sort symbolism or direct story. I suppose it’s another song that could read like a prayer, but even so, it’s not as fleshed out as “Peace Tonight.”

The final use of water on Petals comes in “Home in Your Heart.” Almost like a river baptism, the song deals with the rebirth and new beginnings in life. The album ends on a strong note in the melodies. The use of strings are well done, and even though the songs are slower, they compliment the lyrics. And in the final song, “Close as Can Be,” the lyrics tell the story of a woman trying to move on from the death of a loved one. Bonnie Paine’s vocals are spot on as she sings about how the memories will keep them as close as can be.

Petals is a well written album, exploring common life situations with new symbolism and different approaches. Sonically, though, the band take an approach of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” The song’s melodies stay in the Elephant Revival comfort zone as heard on the band’s previous albums. With that said, Petals is a good folk/Americana album worth listening exploring.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Tony Furtado’s ‘The Bell’

Tony Furtado The Bell

The Americana genre is home to many talented artists and this is something I’ve been fully grasping as I’ve explored the music throughout it. There are so many different artists with different sounds and styles, yet at the end of the day I’ve found the majority of them all come from the same place: their heart. This is where the true music comes from and Americana artist Tony Furtado is certainly an artist who sings from his heart. The singer-songwriter from Oakland, California is a banjo player and slide guitar player. In the sixth grade he became a banjo player after writing a report about banjos and making a rough banjo out of materials around his house. So you can see why this artist of Portuguese and Italian heritage plays music today in the vein of Celtic folk and Americana. Earlier this summer he came out with his new album The Bell, released on his own label Yousayfurtado Records. It’s important to point out the inspiration behind this album before I review it. Furtado describes this album as “a very personal journey inspired by the loss of my father, the birth of my son and few uncontrollable changes in my career.” The entire album is in dedication to his father, William “Bill” Furtado, and you can certainly feel the pain he suffered as a result of his loss throughout it. I only wish I had come across The Bell sooner because it’s an album full of fantastic songwriting and instrumentation.

“Broken Bell” kicks off the album and it has a decidedly Celtic folk sound. The production and instrumentation on this song is very well done. The acoustic, especially the fiddle, are engaging and immediately grasp the listeners’ attentions. It was also a nice touch by Furtado to add the sound of rattling chains when he sings the line, “You will never chain my mind.” It helps the listeners connect with the song even more. The beautifully written “Tired Lions” follows this. Furtado says the inspiration for this song came from a sculpture of a lion he saw: The title of this song was inspired by a beautiful sculpture I saw at the DeYoung museum in San Francisco. It’s a sculpture of what appears to be a very tired, worn out lion. It made me think of my father. Then the song came. To be able to derive inspiration from a sculpture shows the true songwriting talents of Furtado. I don’t think a lot of songwriters could do this. I would also be remiss to not point out the great pedal steel and banjo play in this song that gives this song the perfect mood.

Up next is “Dying Language.” It’s a song about dealing with hateful and ignorant words. Furtado sings of how we all deal with it and how it can affect each of us in a different way. It’s definitely a song I think all of us connect with in some way, as we all have to deal with this negativity in our lives. Once again Furtado shows off his brilliant songwriting. The all-instrumental “Astoria” shows off the talent of Furtado’s band and leads us into “Low Road.” It’s a song short on words and deep in meaning. The brevity of the song itself really allows the reader’s mind to wander and imagine for them what this song means. To me the song is about watching someone you love destroy themselves with bad decisions and getting trapped in a bad situation as a result. But it’s not only harmed them, but the ones around them. This is definitely one of those songs where the “less is more” approach pays off.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, the death of Furtado’s father was one of the inspirations behind his album and “Tall Grass” is certainly one of those songs that draws from it. It seems to be about how Furtado and his brother looked up so much to their father and how his lost makes them feel alone in the world without him. It’s a sobering and sad song that will surely touch those who have lost loved ones in their life. Another all-instrumental song in “Iowa” prefaces “Give Me Your Soul.” It’s a love song where Furtado professes his love for a woman. But he’s not interested in her looks, but rather her soul. Now upon first listen this song can kind of come off as creepy on the surface, with the somewhat serious tone of the instrumentation and the line about “flesh and bones.” It’s really though a sweet and catchy love song.

“Ashes of a Man” is another song where Furtado sings about the death of his father. And again Furtado really bears his soul in the music. You can feel the passion and love he felt for his father and the impact it’s made on his life. It’s really a sad song, but I find it to be a reminder once again that you should cherish all of the loved ones in your life. “The Collier’s Daughter” is a song about a man appearing to fall in love with a collier’s daughter. For those unaware, a collier is another word for coal miner. The man though seems to be unsure if he should run off with her or not. I didn’t connect with this song as much as I did others on the album, but it’s still a solid song nonetheless.

The last all-instrumental song on The Bell, “Jo Jo,” plays into the final two songs. Now I know some people don’t like these types of songs, but I find them to be effective when used properly. Furtado uses them properly in this album, as I find them to be nice breathers after the deeper and emotional songs. Plus his band is quite good. The next song, “Lie Alone,” is another song where Furtado expresses the pain of losing his father. It’s another heart breaker that will surely tug at your emotions. Furtado certainly proves to have a knack for writing songs that can rip your heart out of your chest. The Bell closes out with its happiest song, “Star.” While Furtado mourns the death of his father throughout much of the album, he also celebrates the beginning of life with his newborn son with this song. It’s an uplifting reminder of how life works in a circle. While you may lose the light of someone you dearly love in one instance, in the next you can gain the light of someone else you love dearly. Life is beautiful this way and Furtado expresses this well through his music.

Tony Furtado flat-out impresses me on The Bell. When I think of Americana music, this is what I want to hear. The songwriting is poignant and thought-provoking throughout. The concepts of life and death are really the main themes of this album. Furtado takes these themes and really meshes them together well to come up with messages that are heartfelt and impactful on the listeners. The instrumentation and production are well done on pretty much every song, allowing the lyrics to really shine and resonate. I highly recommend you check out The Bell. If you can appreciate great songwriting, you can appreciate Tony Furtado and his music.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – James McMurtry’s ‘Complicated Game’

If you mention the name James McMurtry to anyone in the Americana world, they’re likely to respond with nothing but high praise. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics,” says Jason Isbell of the singer-songwriter. John Melloncamp has said, “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime.” And even author Stephen King has said, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” With that kind of praise, you can imagine that expectations are high with each album release from McMurtry. And with his newest album, Complicated Game, being his first release in six years, James McMurtry doesn’t disappoint.

Complicated Game is a songwriter’s album. The production in each song has slight variations, but a majority of the album is met with simple acoustic guitar notes and light drum beats. The driving force of the album is the lyrics and stories that McMurtry has penned. “Copper Canteen” is one of a few songs that speak to the hardworking, little man. Times are rough in the small town, money is tight, and life’s unavoidable circle of old ones dying and new ones being born add to the weight of mom and pop shops closing up because of the invading big box stores. But there’s still time to enjoy the small offerings of life, like getting in that last hunt before the season ends, or drinks with friends at the local pub.

“You Got to Me” is a love song about a wedding. McMurtry reminisces of the two of them when they first started out while providing vivid details of the wedding and party around them. The song documents the maturing process of growing from a single, reckless man to a married, more subdued husband, and McMurtry himself may not quite understand what it all means yet. “I Ain’t Got a Place” is about a traveller. A drifter roaming from town to town, be it a musician or just a nomad, unsatisfied with each place he stays. McMurtry does a great job painting a poignant picture on this track.

“She Loves Me” deals, again, with a travelling man. In one particular town, he has a woman who loves him. Their relationship isn’t monogamous, and they’ll both do as they please while he’s away. However, once he’s back in town, she makes him top priority for her affections. There’s a bit of arrogance in the way McMurtry sings this song, and it’s fitting. “How’m I Gonna Find You Know” is a rocking journey. This man is looking for a woman he’s infatuated with. She’s a badass bartender, and he’s down on his luck with a beat up old car and broken cell phone. This man is hot and ready and made preparations for a passionate night, but after running late, he can’t find, but continues to look. From the banjo to McMurtry rattling off-line after line of great, hilarious details of a night going from bad to worse, this song just rocks, certainly making it an album highlight.

“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is another semi-love song. McMurtry sings of the things he’s learned about the woman he loves. These things seem to be more and more impressive to McMurtry as the song progresses. In “Deaver’s Crossing” McMurtry tells the fictional story of a hitchhiking man who’s hard life got even harder as his farm land was taken to make room for a national park. The story was influenced by Shenandoah National Park’s inception over old farm land, one of which was actually owned by a family named Deaver. McMurtry simply tells a heartbreaking story filling in the blanks himself.

In “Carlisle’s Haul,” James McMurtry tells an epic story of a struggling fisherman. The fisherman and couple buddies illegally fish and try to catch enough to feed themselves and sell to the market for some much-needed cash, all while trying to avoid the law. The seven-minute saga is excellent, fantastic storytelling. “Forgotten Coast” is a simpler, more classic country tune. McMurtry simply moves down to an old coastal town, leaving behind his life and love to fish, sit on a front porch and enjoy an uncomplicated life in solitude. “South Dakota” may be the most heartbreaking song of the collection. A soldier returns to his small South Dakota home after being discharged. But the struggles of the farm life aren’t glamorous: cows are killed by a blizzard, their hides won’t sell much, and there’s no oil or gas to drill for to get some cash. The soldier entertains the idea of re-upping for the army because at home “you won’t get nothing here but broke and older.”

“Long Island Sound” is about a man who moves to the big city to start a new life. As the years have gone by, the hustle and bustle of the big apple and family responsibilities take over, leaving times of growing up in a simple, small town nothing but a distant memory. It’s a memory McMurtry reflects on with a beautiful Celtic-inspired production and an easy sing-along chorus. “Cutter” ends the album with another heartbreaking, sorrowful tune. It’s a biting song that doesn’t beat around the bush. There are demons, painful memories, loneliness haunting this man, and the red ridges from cuts on an arm are the only physical sign of his emotional pains.

James McMurtry can write one hell of a story. The attention to detail he puts in every song is excellent. Old heartbreak songs, love songs, the everyman struggles of making ends meet, all these topics are explored in fresh, innovating ways. There aren’t many songwriters in music like McMurtry. While the production may not necessarily change much between songs, McMurtry’s detailed words and phrases along with the slight rasp of his voice help each song earn a place on the album. Complicated Game is a great songwriting offer from James McMurtry.

Grade: 9/10