By Scott Caffrey
Railroad Earth’s double-live Elko arrived in the mail minutes before a road trip to Vermont. And because The Black Bear Sessions continues to hold its spot in my road-tation, I had the perfect excuse to absorb the nuances of this breadthy, musical tome.
I haven’t heard much in the way of good music by new American songwriters lately. And while the first disc had its downer moments, as I made my way through the second, I soon realized that this nasty New Jersey sextet is making strides with each new album and just getting better all the time. Hopefully by now, they’ve been able to shake that early, limiting bluegrass label and cast away the unfortunate “next acoustic Dead” tag to prove that they’re worthy of the more suitable, and incorporating “Americana.” No less limiting, just more apropos.
Theirs is a kind of folk-rock for the adult set, slowly moving into that rarefied company with folks like The Band. And if nothing else, with Elko they prove that their attention to Americana extends far beyond just the sound of their music. They always had that historical penchant in their back pocket as a nice sidebar. But the validity of it became evident after digesting these dozen tracks – culminating in a fascinating live album named after a fascinating little town in Nevada - a true Kerouac vision in every sense of the idea.
More than a half-dozen of Elko’s tracks come from their first two records, the aforementioned Bear and its rushed follow-up, Bird in a House. No specific song represents 2004’s The Good Life, but its influence can be heard all over the place in the form of expansion. And as someone who’s been known to grumble about much of today’s jamming, these guys kept me interested nearly all the way through, which really says something because this thing features some serious monsters – a handful of tunes averaging a daunting 15 minutes. And in live acoustic music, that’s akin to foot-shooting.
Headed by the songwriter Todd Sheaffer, this versatile little acoustic band (Tim Carbone, violin; Carey Harmon, drums; Johnny Grubb, bass; John Skehan, mandolin; Andy Goessling, too many to mention) is really making strides as a unit, taking their masterful blend of music to broader heights. Sheaffer’s songwriting runs the gamut of human moods, but his penchant for the old ways can get a bit too literal for his own storytelling good, as in “The Hunting Song.” Sometimes imagery is better than actuality.
The band’s biggest strength is that all six Railroaders contribute harmonic vocals, adding punch to all the right spots. That and a mastery of each respective instrument afford the album a rare balance for this scene. For every violin solo that grates a nerve (the coda on “Like a Buddha”), a thumpy rock tune makes up for it (“Warhead Boogie”). The songs are long but interesting. There’s honest-to-goodness substance here, purposeful jams. You can hear that their confidence and maturity has grown with each new track. Disc one finishes with a killer version of “Head,” Bear’s opening track and the first tune most people probably ever heard from these guys. Stretched out, complete with a swirling new intro, the vocal meshing these guys perform is something you just gotta hear.
Railroad Earth’s ability to make their jams interesting is a skill reserved for folks in that genius club. I’m reluctant to shove these guys in there, but that skill is either honed or just a lucky sixth sense shared by all members. And while I have no doubt the Railroaders work hard to sound good, my guess is their skill lies in that freakish ability to add the perfect note at the perfect time. If you have a hankerin’ for one of the year’s best albums by an American band, you’d do well to visit Elko and spend some time there.
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