A saint prays on her knees. Jamacian men and women dance all night in a field with a mobile speaker truck. Saint Cecilia is the patron of musicians; sound system culture gave rise to reggae music which changed the face of an island. Cleveland folk-rock band Expecting Rain gives homage to these with their full-length debut, Saint Cecilia Sound System.
Briefly, Expecting Rain formed on 2002 as a vehicle for singer-guitarist Nick Tolar and lyricist Tony Vorell. They took their pessimistic name from a Bob Dylan song, and started recording at home with a little help from their friends, culminating in a self titled EP on Cleveland independent Van Gogh Round in 2004, which met with local acclaim. Saint Cecilia Sound System is their first full length record, and their first as a full band.
Watch how lyricist Tony Vorell compresses fifty years of post-war Cleveland into 2:38 for “My Gift to the Workers who Won WWII”. The jubilation of a hard-won peace gives way to pride in family, only to decline slowly as industry leaves and the city crumbles. At the end, every drunken worker snaps bitterly at authority in the fake renaissance of the suburbs. The music sounds like a celebration with its busily funky drums and cooing vocals, keeping up the promise of the first verse while the later verse slide into misery. The grandeur of the title track builds with a swell of harp, but comes sliding to a halt as the narrator realizes he never told anyone about his love. Such observations of the small moments of life being written about for the first time put Tony Vorell in the class of songmen like Randy Newman or Ray Davies, but focused exclusively within the Cleveland city limits.
The Saint Cecilia Sound System album is an intestely labored and obsessed over affair. The band recorded themselves at home, tweaking each track to perfection. Drummer Mike Hutton engineered the sessions, and his demanding ear shines through on the finished product. You can hear singers breathe in and guitars ring nakedly in a silent backdrop. Each instrument comes in exactly as needed and leaves just as timely. A look at the personnel with its swelling list of orchestral instruments would suggest a band given to excess; one listen tells you this a band with a clear vision and restraint enough to enhance the songs.
Nick Tolar's voice unites the songs. Simultaneously pitiable and self-righteous, Nick Tolar is your invitation to the unique but common world of Expecting Rain. His sweet acoustic guitar melodies are balanced by Dave Molnar virtuoso electric interjections, as at home with country licks as experimental textures. Steph Griffin adds the sad girl harmonies that console and taunt to the loner lead vocalist. Mike Allen adds bass lines which seem busy but always nail the underlying melody of the sound. Mike Hutton brings drum line precision to rock drumming, shaded by tons of auxiliary percussion. Rob Kovacs, despite not playing live with the band, plays classical piano and keyboards on top of simple folk melodies, adding yet another layer of contrasts.
Together, Expecting Rain have crafted an album that is both haunting and charming. Saint Cecilia Sound System is full of catchy melodies and poignant stories.