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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[Published on: 1/30/06]

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rpmills starstarstarstarstar Thu 2/2/2006 01:28PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Went to the CD release show @Fillmore. They opened with the first track from the album; notables were "Head" and "Bird in a House" which were off the hook. These guys are smoking right now; go see them, especially if you live in CO as they in the middle of a lengthy tour of the Rocky Mountain state.

philszone95 star Thu 2/2/2006 07:31PM
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I would just like to say that it seems Scott Caffrey?? tries alittle to hard to be devil's advocate... Railroad Earth is THE best band out their right now without a doubt. Stop whineing about evrything Scott?? and accept it,live it and love it baby!!! My rating is for the review not the band!!

johnmoe star Wed 2/15/2006 06:54AM
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this cd was my first but certainly not my last Railroad Earth cd. Scott get with it man this cd is great man. peace

rmeme starstarstarstar Tue 2/21/2006 04:02PM
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to be honest, even after repeated listenings, I can't but think of this album as too safe and not really representitive of what these boys are capable of. There are certainly much better recent live versions of Head, Bird in A House, Like a Buddha and Railroad Earth.

Before you flame me for knocking your favorite bands newest release, I love RRE, and play the shit out of them on my radio programs, in the car, at home, in the office. I just strongly feel this is too safe and not adventurous enough.

Don't let that stop you from buying it, the Warhead Boogie on disc 2 is worth the price of admission. Just had hoped they had hit a home run instead of what to me seems like a triple.

grnmtns starstarstar Tue 5/23/2006 12:13PM
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Just listen to the "soft & sweet" jam in self-titled ballad, "Railroad Earth" on Elko. Really listen. If you can do so while driving through the mountains of colorado, all the better, but just really listen. It's perfect. I saw these guys for the first time in Woodstock, NY, and bought Elko at the show as my first RRE cd. Most certainly will not be my last. These guys are great.