[22 July 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If there’s room in your pop heaven for Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, the Indigo Girls, and Fleet Foxes, you oughta make room for Burlap to Cashmere, mostly-acoustic choogaloogers with a thing for lyrics both inscrutable and sincere. Their self-titled second album even OPENS by emulating the Foxes’ wide-eyed wonder: chiming guitars and tenor voices advise, “Keep your eyes on the new day / You and me, we are the same / Shout it out at the horizon / And don’t forget to change your name.” (No idea what that means, though it reminds me of the end of The NeverEnding Story, when Bastian shouts the Empress’s new name out the window.) From there the music gets fleeter and foxier, as the hard-strumming trio builds into a weird-time-signatured ode to… vacation? Singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos is at ease, the ocean’s near, and the sun is sinking; he keeps telling his baby, “Don’t forget to write”, even though he keeps seeing said baby in the sun and the wind. Oh, and Delopoulos also tells us he’s the ocean, which might make him Neil Young. In any case he’s a hippie who’s one with nature. I keep trying to dislike him for this, but he and his band sound terrific.
If you were listening to Christian pop radio in the late ‘90s—AND WHO WASN’T?—you may remember Burlap to Cashmere as the guys who sounded like Jars of Clay, if Jars of Clay had just seen a kickass Gipsy Kings show. Flamenco and Greek flourishes and “lai lai lai” vocals made the Burlaps jump out of CCM’s morass, and they scored four hits and a Dove Award for best rock album. Anybody Out There? had some good songs, but the band’s ethnic folk elements came across as CCM novelties more than musical necessities, not unlike Jars of Clay’s tinwhistle or Chris Rice’s cartoon praise song. BTC also had some boring ballads awash in synths. And then they disappeared for more than a decade.
With the public’s expectations at a feverishly low pitch, the new Burlap to Cashmere could be anything, really—adult alternative dreck, four-to-the-floor dance pop, witch house, you name it. So, it’s sort of amazing that this album not only sounds like Clinton-era BTC, but it actually sounds better. And it’s on a major label. Adult alternative producer Mitchell Froom provides some keyboards and, presumably, direction, but aside from that it’s just the guitar-bass-drums folk rock band playing 11 fine songs. Even a relative snooze like “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere” has a memorable tune and an indelible sound. The band sings in harmony. You can hear the walls of Froom’s room. And if that’s not enough to get you excited, plenty of their songs are flat-out great.
You can divide Burlap to Cashmere songs into two rough groups: straightahead coffeehouse tunes, and totally bitchin’ odd-meter stuff that sounds really hard to play. The former category includes “Live In a Van”, a cheerful country ditty that reimagines Chris Farley’s most famous Saturday Night Live character as a Thomas Merton-style seeker. The rest of their coffeehouse tunes aren’t quite so happy-go-lucky. “Seasons” ominously equates its locomotive backbeat with time’s ever-rolling stream. “Hey Man” is a tough little rocker about being in a band, possibly Appalachian prog band Crack the Sky. “Closer to the Edge” sounds like the Indigos singing about a boxer, lai lai lai. These guys really cover all the acoustic bases. Most of these coffeehouse songs have mysterious minor-key melodies that are impossible to shake but fun to sing around the house.
Harder to sing are the bitchin’ songs, even though their melodies are no less catchy and memorable. In fact, their melodies sound even more natural floating over the top of weird roiling meters like 9/8 or 7/8 or whatever. They feel less composed, more like they’re drifting in from whatever ether produced this eternal music. Alternately, they feel like boats adrift on the irregular pulse of the ocean, which makes some sense—Delopoulos really likes singing about the ocean. He wants to live on a boat and sail away with his children, maybe to the Greek island of Santorini. Don’t forget to write! Thanks to the band and maybe Mr. Froom, these songs are constant wellsprings of motion and life, with abrupt dynamic shifts and subtle “diddidit dit dit” background vocals, even some gang shouts. Back on the band’s ‘98 hit “Basic Instructions”, such stuff sounded like it was tacked on to a message song. Now everything is integral to everything else—these new songs writhe around like organisms.
Which is to say, they’re not message songs. The Jive label isn’t marketing Burlap to Cashmere 2.0 as a Christian group—though CCM label Essential is taking care of that end—and I’m struggling to think of a Christian radio station that would play them. Religious themes are certainly there, notably in “Other Country” (“Draw near, the Lamb’s awaiting”) and the triple-A radio single “Build a Wall”, probably the only pop song about wealthy Hebrew purity fiend Nehemiah. But even that’s more a dark, Dylanesque tall tale.
Instead, Delopoulos is working the same semi-Christian lyrical turf as King’s X or the Indigo Girls: lots of Bible imagery, lots of openhearted reckoning with life and death, but not much overt confession. Now he sings stuff like, “Through the hills and valleys / Someone calls my name / Opens up the sky, takes me off my train.” Dude. That’s heavy stuff, but coupled with the Burlaps’ expert musicianship it sounds colorful, passionate, ambitious, and warm—just like the rest of this wonderful album.