Breakups are tough, no way around it–but there are things that are harder. When Jacob Furr sings “Does love still sit on our front porch / although your chair is empty?” in “Drift Away,” he’s not referencing some girl who ran off (or that he chased off with bad behavior); he’s talking about his wife, who died of cancer suddenly. I’m not a man to spill other people’s news, so here’s a long article about the album’s backstory from the Dallas Observer. But I mention it because it gives an accurate perspective on Trails and Traces.
With such heavy subject matter, it’s particularly impressive that these alt-country songs are so nimble, light, and upbeat. I don’t mean that we’ve got party rock going on here, but that songs like “Mockingbird,” “One More Round” and “Blakes Song” all rely on swift fingerpicking, major keys, gentle moods, and an overall melodic feeling of wistful calm. To have gone through the wringer and come out alive and intact is one thing; to be able to sing calmly, even hopefully, about it is another thing altogether.
There are some louder country-rock tunes here: opener “Branches” and follow-up “Lines” both get that Texas feel into the full-band arrangements. “Branches” has a wide-open rock feel, while “Lines” gets some honky-tonk vibe going on. Single “Falling Stars” is led by a squalling, reverb-heavy guitar line that evokes The Walkmen (a cross-genre reference, but an apt one). The end of the wrenching “I Remember You,” one of the few times that the depths of sorrow and angst emerge, is a crushing stomp populated by towering distorted guitars, staccato drums, and howling vocals. So there’s definitely some oomph and crunch here, if you’re into that.
But I’m most excited about the calmer tracks: “Drift Away,” “Sunrise Slow” and the three I mentioned earlier, where Furr’s wandering troubadour spirit shines. When Furr lets his voice and guitar do the heavy lifting, the songs push past their rock counterparts in moving quality. “Drift Away” is not the saddest sounding song on the record, nor is it the most devastating in lyric (although it’s pretty close). It does have a expertly nuanced vocal performance that grabs me and vaults the song above its counterparts into a highlight. “Blakes Song” pairs a beautiful guitar line with a mournful vocal line. These are gorgeous songs that are so neatly constructed that you can miss the depth if you don’t pay attention. Listen close.
“Mockingbird” closes the record on an upbeat note. It’s particularly telling of Furr’s intention with the album that he didn’t close with “I Remember You” or “Blakes Song”; he could have sent the listener away with a brutal reminder of loss and the difficulties of this world. Instead, he closes the whole album with a proclamation: “I sing to break the dying calm.” There is a darkness and a heaviness to death, and it affects the living. But it doesn’t have to define the living, as Furr knows. It’s a wonderful thing to discover; it’s an amazing thing to leave a listener with.
Furr labels Trails and Traces as Americana, as many people have been doing these days. He does bring in elements of folk-rock, country-rock, and folk fingerpicking; maybe that sound is what Americana means these days. Regardless of the genre labels, Trails and Traces is a powerful record about life and death that doesn’t get bogged down in morose musings–a rare and remarkable release, indeed.