[13 March 2013]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
The Tom Fun Orchestra is a seven-piece band that hails from the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. Their lyrical matter concerns the tight-knit nature of families and friend groups. The sleeve art for their sophomore LP, Earthworm Heart, is a faded shot of a man fishing in a river. (Whether this is authentic or Instagram-filtered remains to be seen.) These seven rustic Canucks are the type of musicians who treat nostalgia as gospel, a fact that the fourteen songs of Earthworm Heart are ample evidence of. The collaborative nature of the musical participants here produces results ranging from Cajun conviviality (“Rowing Away”) to Creedence Clearwater Revival-esque jamming (“Dear Eleanor”) to a tropical island sing-along (the title track). But regardless of the stylistic variations that occur, the big-tent communitarianism of the musicians involved here is what really distinguishes The Tom Fun Orchestra. All these facets of this warm-hearted collective establish the overwhelming theme of retrospective on Earthworm Heart; it’s an album that sounds like you’d listen to it while flipping through old photo albums. In many ways this LP is a photo album of its own kind; visually and poetically rich lines like “I am bleeding Hallelujah on a train to George’s Roadhouse with my friends” are scattered throughout these tracks. Each song provides a unique glimpse into life for the members of the Orchestra.
Despite the presence of slow tracks on the album, however, Earthworm Heart is a high-energy affair. Part of this has to do with lead vocalist Ian MacDougall; while to some his rugged voice may bring to mind alt-rock leading men like Chad Kroeger, his grittiness—helped hugely by the traditional instruments backing him—is more akin to greats like Tom Waits. The urgency with which MacDougall sings effectively conveys the earnestness that Mumford and Sons have become increasingly bad at. His delivery is insistent, as if he is wanting to make sure not a single word of his rings false—and, for the most part, few if any do. But while at 48 minutes, this record doesn’t waste any time in saying what it wants to say, but in trying to keep up the life affirming inspirational mood almost entirely throughout some fatigue does set in. This paradox is similar to seeing Dropkick Murphys live; it’s damn difficult to commit to a physically exertive sonic while also attempting to rein in the natural entropy that comes as a result from all that rocking out. Earthworm Heart isn’t a draining listen, but its shell does begin to crack by the end, especially considering the strength of the first five tracks.
The album’s centerpiece, “Lungs”, is proof that for whatever imperfections exist in this Orchestra, when it’s at its best, it’s breathtaking. “These lungs have wings / and they fly when they sing,” MacDougall declares, mirroring the slow-build of the music behind him. “Lungs” opens with a contemplative, finger-picked electric guitar, the type likely to play over a sentimental montage in an indie movie. By the time the song reaches its final minute, the drums kick in, joined by strings and distorted guitar. Structurally this is fairly rote, the type of thing Coldplay commercialized to no end in the mid-‘00s, but with The Tom Fun Orchestra, a sea of earnestness completely drowns out any potential artificiality. Simply put, “Lungs” is the mirror opposite of “Fix You” in its emotional honesty. Lyrically, it comes close to being a match: “Breathe with me / Feel the need / to make it to the morning and live another day / Wave at all your friends / We’re with you to the end,” is not a spectacularly great phrasing, any more than “Lights will guide you home / And ignite your bones” is. But there’s something about the way the instruments come together on “Lungs” that pushes every heart-tugging button exactly right, and not in any superficial way. It sounds truly authentic; it sounds, like all of Earthworm Heart, like coming home.