While there are plenty of bands to fill the “spooky Americana” ranks these days—the Anomoanon, Blanche, Lampchop, even Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers—most lack the cinematic and complete vision of the Pinetop Seven. Their 2005 album The Night’s Bloom was a triumph of mood and sound (Toy piano! Cello! Pedal steel!) over the course of a baker’s dozen of tracks. As befitting its name, the album was dark but expansive; it was a richly layered album and perfect for a slate-gray November day. Now here in bright, sunny April, the Pinetop Seven return with the odds and sods collection Beneath Confederate Lake. Culled mostly from the sessions for The Night’s Bloom, Beneath Confederate Lake will, naturally, transport you back to late autumn. Call it winter’s last hurrah.
So yeah, nearly half the tracks collected here are holdovers from The Night’s Bloom, but they’re no rejects. From the sinister gypsy vibe of opener “High on a Summer’s Tree”—think Camper Van Beethoven touring Eastern Europe—to the cowboy movie theme hook and slinky rhythm section of “Canteen”, think of BCL as The Night’s Bloom‘s appendix.
Not a lot happens on a Pinetop Seven album. Characters may sit and think (“I finally see everything you were to me,” the narrator of “Afterthought” realizes too late) or lie in repose (“Two Dead Men in a Vermont Graveyard”) but they seem to exist in a world that exists to us today only through pre-colonial woodcuts and drawings in high school history texts. Indeed, the album’s cover is a drawing from 1590 of Native Americans fishing in Chesapeake Bay. Also, the band, a loose collective of Chicago-area musicians, led by Darren Richard, lives in the past with their contributions to the score of the independent film, Numinmata: “Lewis & Clark Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”. They’re instrumental, dusty banjo numbers, plinking along like a very sad music box. The Seven are a band outside of time.
Of course, as soon as I say that, it’s time to mention the song on Beneath Confederate Lake that couldn’t be any more in The Now, even if it was written over 30 years ago: their urgent cover of Tom T. Hall’s “The Promise and The Dream”. The album’s centerpiece, and surrounded on both sides by all the abovementioned ethereality, “The Promise” is both elegiac and impassioned, with ripped-from-the-headlines lyrics like “Your leaders prefer a war”, “We’ve closed so many doors/ Afraid of all their make believe” and the gutpunch ending, when Richard and the song get angry: “America—What happened to you and me?” It’s hard to believe Richard got his hands on the song before Steve Earle did.
For those who prefer the Seven more folksy, the album closes with “Downstate”, Richard’s pragmatic take on love. “The snow’s coming early,” his narrator notes, making explicit the tone of the album, then realizes he had better patch the roof of his house so at least his beloved “will be happy and dry”. With Richard’s vivid imagery, you can practically see these characters; time and again, reviewers mention the word “cinematic” (I already did, in the first paragraph) in regards to both the band’s sound and Richard’s words and it’s not hard to see why. On their albums the Pinetop Seven create their own little universe… even when such an album is a collection of outcast tunes.