[18 September 2011]
The Americana folk revival is in full bloom. Hipsters far and wide are filling classic American musical forms with new meaning. This new generation is taking a different route in the tired quest to find themselves. A route that is encumbered by tradition. A quest for purity of form, even when unlikely musical mash-ups ensue.
This taste for nostalgia has been developing across the indie landscape. From Beirut to Fleet Foxes, many are wearing the clothes of classic American and European folk forms, and are constructing musical identity by conjuring and listening to the past. Not as isolated individuals on a search for original expression, but as a community of players on the same quest. The Dustbowl Revival is a perfect example of this zeitgeist. Frontman Zach Lupetin is staking his claim and taking things even further. A previous generation may have felt a disaffected pride at being “out on their own”, but groups like the Dustbowl Revival are starting to question the foundations of both individualized autonomy and utopian denials of the human condition. It’s a community of musicians that connects and invites the audience to participate. Lupetin’s lyrical and musical concoctions on the Holy Ghost Station EP create a hopeful caricature of life, using tried and true Americana forms that were often birthed out of misery. That fact alone makes this music a post-modern treasure, and the perfect medicine for the musical palette that usually prefers despair over celebration.
It is clear from the outset of Holy Ghost Station that the members of the Dustbowl Revival are quality musicians with a solid handle on early American musical vernacular. This EP is soaked in jazz, bluegrass, gospel, swing, and klezmer. The arrangements are tastefully balanced and the humour embedded in the lyrics bite without becoming too ironic. The balance of Holy Ghost Station is exceptional considering the wide range of musical territory that is covered.
When reviewing an album like this, it is appropriate to ask how well a band like the Dustbowl Revival fills up the forms that they are expressing. Do they respect the roots and push the tradition further, with a distinct communal voice? In the case of Holy Ghost Station, the answer is yes. The EP starts off to the bluegrass bounce of “That Old Dustbowl”. It’s a song that could have been the soundtrack to a happy Steinbeck novel: “You can lose your mind / Lose control / But you ain’t goin’ back to that old dustbowl”. The title track “Holy Ghost Station” is a shuffle blues jam that showcases a capella harmony at the beginning and end of the track, then plenty of tasty licks from the dobro, harmonica, and bass. “Lowdown Blues” recalls New Orleans-style dixieland, and “What You’re Doing to Me” is a Bessie Smith-influenced stride with Caitlin Doyle providing the slightly sexy vocals. “Le Bataillon” features, among other things, the tuba and mandolin while spouting phrases like “Let’s take a ride in my Ford Taurus / We can pretend it’s a brontosaurus”. It is by far one of the most entertaining and original songs penned by Lupetin on Holy Ghost Station. The banjo makes another appearance in the country/bluegrass “Solid Gone”, before the last two tracks “Western Passage” and “No Anchor Rag” bring the listener home. “Western Passage” revels in the kind of vibe that makes Calexico proud to be from Arizona. This instrumental proves to be a favourite, due in part to the creative interplay between the guitar, clarinet, horns, and banjo. A display of musicianship and style; Garrison Keillor could only wish he had a house band this good.
This is great music that may come across as novelty for some, but it is fresh and defies sounding sentimental. Because the players are young it may lack some authenticity, but they are great actors reviving parts of the American musical past that need to be kept alive. Roots folk music has always made a resurgence within American popular music whenever seismic cultural shifts have taken, or are about to take place. Let’s hope that the music of the Dustbowl Revival is a sign of a hopeful shift. Leave it to a bunch of (West Coast) hipster 20-somethings to inject a bit of joy while forging the future by way of the past.