Musical categories are a less-than-perfect short cut used by lazy reviewers to describe a band and it’s music. In a short review, I would just call Railroad Earth a jam band, conjuring up images of Phish, Donna the Buffalo, and Leftover Salmon, and have done with it. Marketers, likewise, gotta think about what kind of outlets and radio stations they want to send their product to, and there’s simply not a format titled “Neat Eclectic Music”. Bands, however, don’t seem particularly fond of being stuck in a category because it limits who will consider listening to their music (and who will consider buying the new album). Besides, Railroad Earth might point out, they don’t really sound like these other jam bands.
Nonetheless, Railroad Earth does have quite a bit in common with all things Dead: one can practically smell the patchouli dripping from the CD case. From the mystical album cover to psychedelic lyrics to a tendency to noodle, Railroad Earth qualifies—given the musical categories we have to choose from in the Year of Our Lord 2002—as a jam band.
Railroad Earth formed at the beginning of 2001 when vocalist Todd Sheaffer, mandolinist John Skehan, violinist Tim Carbone, guitarist Andy Goessling, drummer Carey Harmon, and bassist Dave Von Dollen got together for a loose jam. Everything meshed so well, they decided to run with it. Three weeks later they recorded their first demos and soon, even though they hadn’t played their first gig, they would be invited to Telluride. After exposure on the web, the band recorded The Black Bear Sessions, which garnered good reviews. With such an auspicious beginning, expectations have run high for the group’s new album.
The best thing about Bird in the House is the happy sound the band achieves with a combination of acoustic and electric instruments. Acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and banjos, backed by electric bass and drums, update the sound of an album like Workingman’s Dead by adding a stronger bluegrass element. The bluegrass element also separates Railroad Earth from the bass-heavy Donna the Buffalo and electric eclecticism of The String Cheese Incident, meaning that the band has a distinct sound. Songs like “Mountain Time” and “Like a Buddha” also have memorable melodies and catchy hooks. Add to this happy-go-lucky instrumentals like “Lois Ann” and “Pack a Day”, and you have a stimulating package.
The lyrics are another thing all together. Some seem clever. “Bird in the House”, for instance, turns the amusing phrase, “I want to sing my own song that’s all, cried the bird and flew into the wall”. Others are a bit odd. “Like a Buddha” rhymes “a feeling running through you” with “smiling like a Buddha”, while “Give That Boy a Hand” carries the peculiar line, “stepping in brown stuff, it ain’t no big disgrace”. I think both lines mean everything’s gonna be okay and even though life isn’t perfect you can still find inner peace. Or something like that. Sheaffer delivers all the words in a stoned slur, making me think that he either used to sing with a new wave band or that he’s actually stoned. Either way, the buoyant music adds a cheerful air to the tie-died lyrics.
The good songs run deep on Bird in the House. “Came Up Smilin’” is the kind of feel-good piece that you want to sing along with, while “Dandelion Wine” seems custom made for flatfooting in the aisles. Goessling’s guitar work on this latter song is incredible. “Saddle of the Sun” ends the album on a bouncy note, recalling the wonderful newgrass sound of the New Grass Revival.
It might have been nice to have a lyric sheet and a breakdown of who did what on each track, though perhaps only reviewers want all the dirty details. Looking over the liner notes, I’m not even sure who wrote all of the songs. The band, in fact, seems more concerned with identifying whether John Siket or Don Sternecker mixed a particular track than taking credit for their individual efforts. Perhaps that’s the point.
At any rate, the music sounds just fine as is, and that’s all that really matters. Calling a group a jam band may be technically accurate, but if they don’t deliver the goods, who cares? On Bird in the House, Railroad Earth lives up to their press, making them a hot act to catch on the festival circuit this fall. Perhaps one day Railroad Earth fans will swear that you’ve gotta hear a live show to understand what really puts the jam in the band; for now, however, Bird in the House offers the next best thing to being there.