I’ve just spent a solid five minutes examining the liner notes to Paul Burch’s East to West, searching for something (an asterisk, footnote, secret code), anything to prove that the second track, “When I’m In Love”, is not a Burch original. It just can’t be, I tell myself. I know that melody, that lyric, that playfully tugging bassline, that harmony. From where? I don’t know. What song does it remind me of? Couldn’t tell you. The song just sounds like it’s always been around, and I’ve heard it, maybe even sung along to it before. But I guess that’s to be expected from Burch, whose extensive knowledge of and passion for American song should rightfully land him at least two soundtracks to movies by the Coen brothers.
Across six albums (two for Checkered Past, two for Merge, and now two for Bloodshot), Burch’s songs have tied together threads from a variety of folk forms, to the point where a song like “When I’m In Love” is a beautiful knot of country, pop, and rhythm & blues. In record store bins his work is likely to be found “country”, but listening to Burch is to be reminded of the genre’s potential beyond endless shades of red state sycophantism, to encompass riotous eulogies, murder trials, and an inspired duet with icon Ralph Stanley.
While the title suggests a transcontinental trek, with the album’s artwork featuring the nation’s middle (Bloodshot’s hometown of Chicago), the East likely refers to London, where part of the record was laid down at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios. That of course led to some nifty collaborating on the somber, Spanish-flavored “Before the Bells”, but it was also a fairly logical place to bring Burch’s pan-Americana, the ancestral home of so much Southern balladry and melodic patterns. You can always be sure that the history music is not lost on Burch, whose songs stare respectfully at the past as they walk patiently backwards into the future. Or the present. Burch honors late BBC radio legend John Peel on, well, “John Peel”, giving shouts out to Laura Cantrell, Eddie Cochran, and skiffle king Lonnie Donnigan in the process. Over a bluesy, swaggering beat, Burch recounts a visit to Peel’s home where the latter told stories of his decade-spanning omnipresence in popular culture. The reverence in Burch’s voice is palpable, as is the pride in having spent time with a musical hero.
Later on East to West, Burch gets to do just that, backing Ralph Stanley on the old-timey “Little Glass of Wine”, written by Ralph’s brother Carter. The arrangement, from Steve Sparkman’s rolling banjo, to Fats Kaplin’s soaring fiddle leads, is faithful to Stanley’s legacy as one of the founders of bluegrass, yet still full of the same youthful energy and conviction as the contemporary tracks. When Burch yelps, announcing the solo on “When I’m in Love,” you’d have to have restless leg syndrome or some such impediment not to get up and dance to its honky-tonk goodness. The chiming, folkish “December Sparklers” is another standout, abetted by Kelly Hogan’s harmonies on a sweetly descending chorus. “I taste gunpowder on her lips / My gal shoots the fireworks / On Independence Day / Her eyes were blue in the rocket’s red glare” Burch sings with his typically playful wit.
Where his music covers several classic genres with a perfectionist’s accuracy, it’s Burch’s lyrics that do most of the envelope pushing, surprising enough to make you hit rewind, or whatever we’re made to hit these days. On story songs, like murder ballad “Last Dream of Will Keene”, Burch’s verbal prowess keeps the story entertaining no matter how many times you hear it. It would do justice to spoil the details here, but it’s an inventive update on folk music’s fascination with murder, revenge, and vigilantism—just another example of Burch’s knack for making sure old forms remain not only desirable to listen to, but vital.