Dave Shuford must need a break from all the improvisation he whips up as a member of the No-Neck Blues Band. How else to explain the straight-laced country-western vibe of his work fronting D. Charles Speer & the Helix? That’s not to say things get dull here, but the playing is tight, the compositions full but restrained. You can see the walls around these songs, whereas with No-Neck Blues Band it is sometimes hard to even know if what they’re playing are songs at all.
Leaving the Commonwealth continues the band’s straight-ahead country sound. As usual, the playing itself is downright stunning all the way through. Hans Chew’s key work is percussive, intricate, and punchy, while Marc Orleans’s pedal steel coats everything in a beautiful but misleading haze. It’s easy, with his notes gliding along, to miss just how on-point all the players are. It also creates a big noise for Shuford’s unassuming hum of a voice to slip right in. Here, he sounds like a weary road-warrior, with the kind of low grumble that commands attention not through volume but through a more stoic, hard-earned gravitas. It’s a voice that Frank Black attempted on his honky-tonk records and never quite pinned down.
Shuford and company are at their best when they stretch out their chops here. Even as the structures are clear, Shuford sometimes shifts them at key moments. “Cumberland”, the album’s longest and best song, rides the same roots-rock vibe as the rest of the record, but breaks up in the middle and cuts into a quieter shuffle. It’s not the first surprise on the record—it follows barn-burner “Le Grand Cochon”, sung in French—but it is the most effective. Shuford speak-sings his way through the first half of the record, spinning winking tales of hardened men until the song moves into a twangy ballad. His voice takes on a bittersweet croon, and it’s easy to see why the half-grin falls away as he sings of the late Jack Rose. The song turns into a fitting tribute to the guitarist, whipping itself back up into a back and forth between Orleans and Chew, just the way Rose would have wanted.
There are other surprises to be found here as well. The brooding instrumental piece “Alamoosook Echoes” is mostly thrumming guitar, preferring huge spaces to the thick layers of the rest of the record. The title track, which closes the record, catches you off guard as Orleans trades the pedal steel for electric guitar and knocks out huge, prog-rock-sized riffs. All of the sudden, in its last minutes, the band stops kicking up dust and goes for the stratosphere instead.
It’s these moments that stand out, but not because other parts don’t work. This band is dynamic and entertaining all the way through. The trouble they do run into when they play the straight honky-tonk band is that those songs peel back on the solos and feature Shuford’s stories. As detailed as they can be—playing on road tunes and murder ballads—the stories often last too long and outstay their welcome. You wait for a piano run or guitar solo to break it up, and instead the band rides the course, and beautiful as it sounds, the words can’t quite keep up. Leaving the Commonwealth is another expertly crafted record by Shuford and company, one that offers a nice counterpoint to his more unruly work in No-Neck Blues Band. You just might find yourself wishing he found the middle ground between his two bands more often. That’s when he’s at his most exciting.