[13 October 2013]
I admit this: the first three listens through The Long Haul, I didn’t know where the Wynntown Marshals were from. I somewhat freely imagined them as a moderately-talented group of small-town boys from Indiana. Or maybe Ohio. Or really anywhere in middle America. As you might have guessed, I was shocked to learn that the Wynntown Marshals actually hailed from the British Isles – specifically the rain-soaked streets of Edinburgh. That, in my book, changes everything about the album. Indeed, prior to the reveal, a song like “Driveaway” seemed like just another alt-country song with a great guitar lick and a lead singer (Keith Benzie) who sounded like Jay Farrar’s kid brother. But pretending to be in the Farrar family is a fairly uncomplicated lie – but pretending to be a Farrar and doing it from across the Atlantic is a whole other ballgame.
The artfulness of the album changed completely with the realization that the Wynntown Marshals were a bunch of Scottish, alt-country devotees. The album is a love letter to the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and early-career Neil Young. In fact, the Wynntown Marshals might be the best original tribute band of all time. But however much I may be stressing the whole British/American angle here, the real achievement of the album is the weird, particular world that a couple of the songs reveal. The song “Curtain Call” is as close to the wacky universe of Josh Ritter’s “The Curse” as anything I’ve ever heard. Beginning with the strung-out narrator in a room full of “poppy haze,” the song recounts the tragic story of a magician whose magic trick – which involved his assistant and a gun – went very, very wrong. The end of the song, which mixes Benzie’s voice, two acoustic guitars, and a couple of strings, finds the narrator contemplating suicide with the same gun. Needless to say, not the lyrical output you’d necessarily expect from a Scottish Ryan Adams.
And then there’s “The Submariner”, a song about a man who left his seemingly happy life out on (what sounds like) the Great Plains to explore the ocean. He doesn’t return, and the narrator, who has taken up with his girlfriend in his absence, speculates that the diving bell he made is now “little more than a handmade tomb.” The striking originality of these narratives butts heads with the straightforwardness of “Breakaway” and “Canada”. In fact, the conflict is a direct one: the creativity of those two songs makes the lyrical work on the rest of the album sound shabby by comparison. Take the third track, “Low Country Comedown”, as a microcosm of the album, where the phrases “a mess of twisted guts” (describing a highway interchange) and “ceilings always looked the same” (describing a hotel room) are only lines away from one another. It’s a tough sell to make both of those work in the same song. The results of this mix between cleverness and seeming indifference make for an uneven album. The Wynntown Marshals give it a fair go – and their adoption of Americana is impressive – but it might just take them the long haul to make it work.