Li’l Cap’n Travis: ...In All Their Splendor

[28 July 2004]

By Jason MacNeil

Neil Young is often a catch-reference for hundreds, if not thousands, of bands who toe the line between a folk-country-rock milieu and popularity. Yet for said thousands, there are perhaps 50 which can be legitimately compared to the icon and of those, five or six which might be deemed worthy of comparisons an album or two from now. Li’l Cap’n Travis is intent on falling into the latter category. The buzz around this group, based in Austin, has them knee-deep in this format but the proof is always in the musical pudding. And for this six-piece band consisting of Adam Bork, Christian Braafladt, Jeff Johnston, Matt Kinsey, Mandon Maloney, and Gary Newcomb, this little captain is one that certainly could deliver on the high praise.

While the picture in the liner notes reminds people perhaps of Marcy’s Playground (remember them?) or some sort of warped children’s pop group, Li’l Cap’n Travis begin this with a Hawaiian-sounding instrumental dubbed “Steady As She Goes”. The style sounds as if Don Ho is on Quaaludes or some other pill as it creeps along describing “living life in paradise”. The band keep this pace that might be endearing to some but at times quite tedious and uninviting to others. Still, the pedal steel touches and high lonesome harmonies should turn a corner with those despising the arrangement. And then as the band would probably want, you start to uncontrollably sway from side to side. Even the marimbas courtesy of Karl Lundin add a subtle quirky layer. But from there they head straight into the cramped barroom sounding quarters of “3.2 Beer of Love”. Here the band is a cross between Young, the Tractor Kings and the Wild Horses—all strong performers with substance to their craft. The funky little guitar jangle melds with the folksy guitar picking. Here they open themselves up in terms of the guitar and bring to mind My Morning Jacket performing in front of a Sunday church audience.

Most of this album is straightforward and packs little surprise, but the strength in doing these numbers with love and care is what keeps the band and album soaring along. “Natural Fool” is a perfect case in point, a tune that could’ve been done by Keith Richards and the late Gram Parsons with Jagger eavesdropping through the screen door. It’s a great tune with a timeless country rock or roots rock sound that you can innately sense when it’s working well. And it is here! The lo-fi basement demo hue oozing from “Gone Fishin’” is a great lead into the honky tonky barroom piano “Bar Full of Fans”, which has the band bringing alt. country uber-group Golden Smog to mind. The obligatory Wilco-ish tune comes during the mellower rock country “Swimming Pool”, which recalls “Via Chicago” from Summerteeth.

The album takes a couple of twists and turns, but all of these are seen miles ahead so the listener can easily glide into them, much like on a motorcycle cruising into a turn. “Teenage Mustache” is a slower, somber piano tune that will tug at one’s heartstrings early on with an almost Tweedy-sweet vocal delivery. Unfortunately, it’s just a snippet of an idea that clocks under 90 seconds. Fortunately, they outdo themselves with the gorgeous and reflective “Let Her Dance”, a song that could be Ryan Adams, Wilco, or some concoction of the two. The group throw off the reins again for, er, “Throw Off the Reins”, another guitar-driven, Southern-fried anthem.

Although there aren’t exactly throwaway songs here, there is one which reeks of filler: “The Grizzled Ones”. The band let their guard down on this one, opting for an easy power pop-by-number flavor. This is forgiven during the laid back country toe-tapping “With Caroline” that the Cash Brothers could do wonders with. Speaking of Cash Brothers, “Broken Headlight” has that vast, wide-open roots touch that builds slowly but oh so lovingly! Overall, Li’l Cap’n Travis exudes a quiet “aw, shucks” style while offering up an album adhering to their influences but expanding on them to maximum effect. Or, mildly put, a winner!

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