[21 March 2014]
Driftwood was once described to me as a mixture of the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. Now, while there are likenesses and a familiarity of sound between these three groups, I believe this description sells the Binghamton, New York natives short. When I first listened to Driftwood’s self-titled third album, I nodded along in agreement to what I had been told about their music, but, upon repeated listens, I heard the nuances of genre and the subtleties of a much more complex musicianship and style. Driftwood is solid. Each track is unique and, yet, the album plays like one continuous jam of four talented musicians. Dan Forsyth, Joe Kollar, Claire Byrne and Joey Arcuri combine a plethora of influences—pop rock of the ‘60s, classical, bluegrass, and contemporary alternative—to create a sound that is both pleasurable to a wide audience and stylistically distinctive.
Driftwood opens with “High School Paycheck”, a mellow banjo and guitar plucking tune that is very reminiscent of the Lumineers, especially when Claire Byrne, the fiddle player, joins Dan Forsyth in harmony. As the song continues, it picks up speed in a fashion all too familiar with bands like Mumford and Sons dominating the airwaves. However, Forsyth’s voice has a grittiness and a prettiness that draws you in and, as the album unfolds, it becomes very clear that, while they may have commonalities with other pop folk/bluegrass groups, Driftwood is not easily classifiable and they are surely bringing something new to the table.
Two songs especially stand out on this record. The first is the second track: “The Sun’s Going Down”. If you are feeling a bit low or are aching for the long, sweet nights of summer (as we all are after this winter), you must hear this song. The lyrics are simple: “Well, the sun’s going down / So if you want me around / And if you want me I’ll be right here / Oh you know where I am / You know where I stand.” It’s impossible to resist shimmying and bobbing along to the fun beat and handclaps and it’s even more impossible to resist falling for guitarist Forsyth’s indecent proposal. Byrne has a beautiful return verse that puts the man in his place just before the song erupts in a full-out blast of music and singing that makes you want to jump around with your best friends until you can no longer breathe. The energy is palpable on the album and I can only imagine it would multiply tenfold in concert.
The second song that deserves special recognition is “Before I Rust”. On this track, Byrne takes lead vocals and her performance leaves me speechless. Her voice is strong and soulful on all the tracks, but, on “Before I Rust”, she sings with such range, emotion, and originality that it is sure to give you chills. Her voice is comparable to all-stars like Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks and could stand alongside contemporary powerhouse vocalists like Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. The song itself is demonstrative of just how unique Driftwood is. They are not simply a folk or bluegrass group (despite the banjo and fiddle). “Before I Rust” has a wild bass breakdown, courtesy of Joey Arcuri, and a funky overall composition that you would expect to hear on a Regina Spektor or Fiona Apple track. It opens traditionally enough, but when it reaches the chorus—“I want it so bad / Surely I will / Surely I must / Somebody get me there before I rust”—the listener slowly learns of the painful and heartbreaking journey that “Before I Rust” is about to take them on.
While these two songs are, in my opinion, the all-stars of Driftwood, all the songs on the album offer something to appease most tastes. If Forsyth’s voice does not do it for you, listen to “Outer Space” and get an earful of banjo player Joe Kollar’s clear and clean vocals. Want more of a folk style and enjoy love songs? Check out “Time Is”. Interested in less standard instrumentation and a jazzier melody? You must hear “Buffalo Street”. Each song is Driftwood’s take on all their influences, meaning they never lose sight of their own sound as a band despite their incorporation of so many varying genres. There is a definite awareness of their identity on this album that almost mimics Forsyth’s assertion on “The Sun’s Going Down”: “I know what I am / And I know what I want.”
Claire Byrne, fiddler and vocalist, stated “Driftwood creates an environment in which I feel I can fully express myself.” And perhaps this is why Driftwood, comes together and works so well. Titling this album after themselves, as a group, is apt for it is indeed a portrait of the alternating degrees of emotion and experience, within the band and within all of us. Just as we all change and grow day to day, so too does this album with every song and each replay.