[15 June 2012]
Ryan McNally and Kyle Cashen originally were following very different creative paths as Canadian musicians. When they came together to make music, I doubt either of them had any idea how brilliant their combination would be. Ryan sings and plays a kick drum, hi-hats, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and ukelele. Kyle utilizes a drum machine, echo, a pedal bass, floor tom, ride cymbal, snare, and tambourine. Both are veritable one man bands who face each other onstage and hold their own. Together, they make up Old Time Machine and have just released their self-titled debut album- and it’s brilliant. Old Time Machine is full of unique ideas filtered through an old lens, in a similar vein to a lot of Tom Waits’ best material, which Old Time Machine is almost on par with. Praise doesn’t get much higher than that.
“Sun Burns Out” immediately gets some dust kicked up and is absolutely riveting in virtually every facet of its execution. McNally is revealed as an incredible songwriting talent, offering up one of the years best opening verses and then continuously matching and exceeding it throughout the course of Old Time Machine. Which is especially surprising considering how easy it would’ve been to falter after such an outstanding opening track, all rustic fire with a gorgeous string and vocal accompaniment. “I’m gonna love you baby ‘til the sun burns out” is as bold of a poetic statement one can make and this song is one of the best someone can listen to.
If any thoughts of subsequent failure were entertained, then “Doin’ All I Can Do” immediately annihilates them, offering up another highlight, something that Old Time Machine never runs out of. The way these songs are filtered not only play up the overall effect to the greatest possible strength, they make them stand out. It’s incredibly hard not to notice something that’s this perfectly realized. That realization is never lost sight of for the entirety of Old Time Machine, which is easily 2012’s strongest full-length debut thus far. Just when you think you’ve got Old Time Machine figured out, though, they pull a trick out of nowhere and execute that to perfection as well, continuously broadening their sound in subtle ways.
That’s a feat that becomes noticeable by the third track, “Pouring Rain”, which is as much of a foot-stomper as the first two tracks. Around this section of Old Time Machine where the words instant classic might start creeping up as a possibility. The way everything flows together in “Pouring Rain” (and every other song on Old Time Machine) is nothing short of astounding. Sounds that aren’t normally associated with each other become the most complementary things imaginable and the band uses them for all their worth and then some. As always, the lyrics are somewhat unbelievable in how perfect they are themselves in both “Pouring Rain” and the following track, “Mountain Shack”.
“Mountain Shack” opens with an insanely detailed narrative of a walk through a town right down to the outstanding lean “I lean on the fender, watch the people go by, notice the girl that I love, she don’t show me her eyes”. It’s small moments like those that continuously materialize effortlessly on Old Time Machine that are strong enough to knock the wind out of the listener. The attention to detail and craft demonstrated throughout the entirety of Old Time Machine is second to none. This isn’t just original music of the highest possible caliber, it’s transcendental of time itself.
Its timelessness is only confirmed by “Feel So Cold” in which one would be forgiven if they were to mistake McNally’s vocals for Dan Auerbach’s. The similarity isn’t particularly evident until that point because, frankly, the music that McNally’s making actually feels more important. Instead of trying to resurrect the delta blues, Old Time Machine’s turned to Tom Waits’ example and created their own peculiar strain of it. “Feel So Cold” is the track where that becomes the most evident, especially when it locks into a deep groove that’s triggered by the low hum of the pedal bass. When it closes out with ghostly harmonies the question of Old Time Machine becoming a destined-to-be over-looked classic is no longer a question but a guarantee.
Those ghostly harmonies permeate throughout Old Time Machine and provide the entire affair with haunted atmospherics that cater to the moods of the songs as perfectly as possible. This is especially true on “Through the Window” and incredibly so when it comes to the songs whistling portions. “Through the Window” is yet another standout due to the intricate arrangements that end up being challenging, memorable, and incredibly effective all at once. Once again, McNally’s whiskey-soaked vocals and incendiary words cut through and elevate a great song even further in quality.
“Where the Hell Are We” is one of Old Time Machine‘s most immediate and accessible tracks. Featuring a pop sheen ripped straight from ‘90s alternative bands and incorporating that into their sound, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a brilliant move that suits the band well and offers up yet another highlight. Everything operates so fluidly in this single track that it’d be hard to imagine that it wouldn’t find some level of success as a single, given the right amount of exposure. “Where the Hell Are We” also, once again, goes a long way in proving Old Time Machine’s versatility and expands ever so slightly upon their potential.
Old Time Machine ends with the brilliant pairing of the eerie “May As Well Be Night” and the unbelievable closer “Tearing Me Down”. While “May As Well Be Night” maybe Old Time Machine‘s least immediate track, it’s not a lesser song, which is an important distinction. “May As Well Be Night” succeeds in showcasing another effective dimension of Old Time Machine’s timeless Americana approach and features the records most haunting backing vocals- as well as one of its best vocal arrangements. As that song closes, all Old Time Machine needed to do was provide a great closing song to have a near-perfect record… and they may have over-delivered.
“Tearing Me Down” is not only the best song on Old Time Machine, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. Beginning with some frantic mandolin strumming and soon accompanied by those persistent haunting backing vocals, sparse drums, and that familiar low hum, it settles into a wonderful verse structure before resuming its opening pattern on the chorus. During the second verse, the songs cut into by a drum machine with some echo for effect and the second chorus is laced with even more vocal assistance. After a post-chorus section everything drops out but the mandolin before it’s re-joined by the machine effect and a taped mandolin loop which continues over the third verse. In the third verse’s latter half a string bass is plucked and it leads straight into one last explosive barn-burning chorus.
When Old Time Machine finally comes to a close, it exits in a sudden haze of feedback that disappears as abruptly as it enters. It’s a breathtaking moment that marks the end of something truly spectacular. While Old Time Machine may be a niche record and may fall just short of being absolutely perfect, there’s no doubt in my mind that in December it’ll still be one of 2012’s most fascinating (and best) releases. Simply stunning.