Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning left an indelible mark on my musical brain. I’ve never liked anything that Conor Oberst has put out so thoroughly: the neurotic energy, youthful fervor, and surrealist lyrics fit perfectly with that specific rambunctious alt-country backdrop. I seek out shades of those raw, impassioned blasts of acoustic guitar and barked vocals wherever I can. Josiah and the Bonnevilles‘ Cold BloodEP is the direct successor of that landmark album. It’s a stake in the ground that establishes the outfit as one to watch: a specific vision expertly handled within the goalposts of a genre framework that people are already familiar with.
The title track took five seconds to entrance me: Josiah calls out into empty space “I’ve got a girl / she only puts out water in the night, in the day, and in the morning” over a nimble fingerpicking pattern. His tenor has a rough edge on it, tempered a bit by the gentle reverb added to it: it’s a magnetic, arresting voice. The rest of the band tag-teams their band through the song: a solitary tambourine is joined by a shaker to create the full percussion line; the round, full bass opens the song up; and the marimba (what) gives a mysterious air to the tune. Instruments come in and fall out (strings! background vocals!), but the whole thing is guided confidently toward a full product by Josiah’s bent, worried lyrics and evocative vocal performance. It’s an expertly crafted tune that you need to hear.
The other three tunes build on the promise of the first track. “Can You Hear It” amps up the singalong vibe and throws down a jaunty piano line to buoy the major-key song. “Lie to Me” returns to the minor key and bashes out a full-band apology to a girl in a relationship that’s falling apart; this one reprises the tambourine from “Cold Blood” and the piano of “Can You Hear It,” but puts in a full drumkit to come up with the most rock-oriented track here. It would sound like Dawes if Josiah’s voice sounded anything like Taylor Goldsmith’s. Closer “Long Gone” features more fingerpicking in a slightly unusual pattern that seems to be tripping over itself trying to get to the end of the riff, perfectly mirroring the narrator’s activity in the song. The band floats in for a final chorus, but it’s most a solo effort, showing Josiah’s troubadour abilities.
The four-song EP is gone much too quickly, but the songs are of such diversity (and such high quality) that you can just loop it back to the beginning and you’ll be good to go for another twelve minutes (or 24, or 36, or…). It’s that good. Call it alt-country, alt-folk, whatever; you’ll know what it is when you hear it. The shadow of youthful alt-countriers past hangs over it but never engulfs it; instead Josiah points the way toward his own path. I’m verging on the purple prose here, but the songs really are that good. Josiah and the Bonneville’s Cold Blood EP is a remarkable first effort that shows off unique arranging skills, intriguing vocals, and strong overall songs. I can’t wait to hear more from this outfit. Highly recommended.
I’m always listening to music. I listen to so much music that I have two strands of listening going at any one time–the stuff I’m reviewing and the stuff I’m listening to for fun. It’s been this way since I was in high school: I once spent six months listening to nothing but CAKE in my spare time. (It’s a good thing I have two arms of this project.) In short, my love for CAKE is deep and abiding. If you’ve read this blog recently, you know that my love for alt-country is just as deep (although categorically not as abiding, as it hasn’t been around for a decade yet.) So if there’s a band that combines CAKE and alt-country, it’s a sure bet that I’m going to be all over that.
Embleton‘s It Did Me Well does just that, including a re-contextualized cover* of “Sad Songs and Waltzes” amid a set of tight, lush, upbeat alt-country songs reminiscent of Dawes and Ryan Adams. The nine songs here form a cohesive whole that shows refined songwriting and arranging skills on the part of bandleader Kevin Embleton.
The opening quartet of tunes says a lot about the record: Opener and title track “It Did Me Well” introduces a crunchy electric guitar riff before settling down into an easy-going acoustic strum. That pattern is soon filled out by wavering pedal steel, distant drums, and Embleton’s impassioned high baritone/low tenor voice. It’s a walking-speed jam that instrumentally reminds me of the Jayhawks and vocally calls up comparisons to the controlled drama of Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith. “You’re Not Ready” introduces a harmonica to the mix, taking a lighter tack than the electrified previous tune. Embleton goes for the pop melody in the chorus, showing off some chops there.
The third track is that CAKE cover. Sonically, it’s not that much different than the original, but it’s pulled from its ironic context (CAKE is not an alt-country band) and placed into an earnest one. Surrounded by other country tunes, it takes on a poignant air that was hard to find in the midst of the irony-laced original. It’s a very clever move on Embleton’s part. The fourth track is lead single “Leaving for Good” (IC premiered it), which slots the pedal steel in the lead spot and creates a gentle tune around that keening, mournful sound. The drums still give the song pep and punch, but the emotional qualities of the lyrics and vocals come front and center. It shows off a different angle of the Embleton sound.
The rest of the album continues to develop the balance between crunchy riffs (“Punches”) and gentle arrangements (“Her Name Was Grace”) while displaying an emotional quality through the vocal lines and the melodies (“Only Begun,” “Mountain Time”). Fans of harder edges on their alt-country (Drive-by Truckers, et al) might find that not to their liking, but fans of Dawes’ ruminations on life and love will love it. If you’re into the past or present Laurel Canyon sound, you’ll be all up in this. It Did Me Well drops March 10–you can pre-order it at Embleton’s site.
*Post-publication, I was informed that “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is originally a Willie Nelson tune, which means that Embleton re-re-contextualized it. As I only knew about the CAKE version when I wrote the review, I’m leaving the text the same. Sorry, Willie. Sorry, Trigger.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.