[2 December 2007]
The spooky, country-noir of the Pines’ debut, Sparrows in the Bell, is of the sort that doesn’t like to call much attention to itself. The songs stare down at their own muddy boots for the most part; content to travel their lonesome paths without flash or gimmick, and for that they’re pretty good. Not to be confused with the indie/twee pop band of the same name, the Pines peddle hushed rustic, atmospheric folk-rock, with songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Benson Ramsey evoking Josh Rouse and M. Ward on tracks like the vaguely swinging “Let’s Go” and the haunted, lovely “Horse & Buggy”. Sparrows in the Bell, the band’s second album, isn’t strikingly original, but neither does it contain any moments of tooth-rattling embarrassment or hollow gestures. At its best, the record is fairly hypnotic, conjuring a grizzled sky, parched fields, and cold wind as well as any like-minded outfit.
One of those best is the aforementioned album opener “Horse & Buggy”, whose brittle, skeletal guitar figure remains constant as the song slowly unfolds. Ramsey’s father Bo (Greg Brown, Pieta Brown) produces, so there are plenty of deft lead guitar touches, but also winding banjo and subtle intimations of drone. The lyrics are less novel, “There’s no heaven without earth/Ain’t no earth without a war under heaven/In this world gone wrong” but they fit the somber tone of the instrumentation perfectly, stealing no thunder but allowing Ramsey’s silvery rasp to provide additional texture rather than narrative authority. “Circle Around the Sun” is warmer, with high fretted mandolin shimmering around co-Pine David Huckfelt’s more tremulous voice, as it details a small-town fall festival. Huckfelt’s a bit more ambitious and literary, with “Circle” navigating between the personal (“Throw your arms around me babe/Like a circle ‘round the sun”) and political (“A song condemning nations exploded from a flute/… Hoarding every penny in this country with no peace”).
Like those of his partner Ramsey but with different results, Huckfelt’s lyrical chops aren’t as honed as they’re sure to become. The Pines are usually too broad or too self-conscious. Both writers’ wordplay pales in comparison to the straight dead-aim of the traditional “Careless Love”, which takes on an appropriately bitter, edgy tone in their hands. Better and more natural than their words is the duo’s modern yet reverent treatment of Americana. “Midnight Sun” is stoic though sleepy, its gorgeous arrangement straddling progressive and time-honored approaches to rural balladry. “Without A Kiss” is a honey-sweet ramble, its brisk strumming offset by the familiar curvature of Bo Ramsey’s echoing leads. “Light Under the Door” uses crystalline piano fills to good effect. Roughed up with some found noise or a buzzing dropped-D tuning, it wouldn’t sound out of place on Transistor Radio or Edge of Amnesia. As it stands, it’s a little more classics-oriented than many contemporary albums traversing similar waters.
“Goin’ Home” completes the album on a wistful, nostalgic note. Again, nothing fancy here, but rewarding nonetheless. Down-home Midwestern simplicity and fatalism pervades, “I’m goin’ home/I’m gonna see my friends/I miss you baby/Maybe you miss me too/Oh when things go wrong/There ain’t nothing you can do.” It’s the younger Ramsey’s best lyrical effort on Sparrows in the Bell, its universal language not at the expense of import. Though not as high profile as lot of folkie records, it’s worth tracking down for fans of weary blues and quasi-traditionalism. The Pines have put forth a solid effort with Sparrows in the Bell that can only mean more exciting developments to come.