I’m dreaming of a round volume knob, a long tree-canopied road, and Roman Candle’s Oh Tall Tree in the Ear crackling loud out of the dashboard of a revved-up classic car of the kind that used to feature in the songs of Chuck Berry.
Sure: that’s an image of yore, from a time before earbuds and iTunes. But while Roman Candle is a contemporary ensemble (go see them soon!), their music well-recalls a much earlier time. None of the fashionable adjectives of today’s “indie scene” — say “gauzy”, “woozy”, “synth-coated”, “apocalyptic”, “vocoder-ized”, “African”, and “hirsute”, to name a few — apply to Oh Tall Tree in the Ear. Indeed, the album isn’t as much rootsy, as it is root- ed. It is rooted in the past, recalling songs that are more likely to be found on dusty vinyl than from streaming kilobytes: refreshingly earnest and brazenly straightforward anthems that both rattle your floor and stick in your head. To this reviewer’s ears, Roman Candle happily play non-hyphenated, non-adjective-ized Rock and Roll.
Do I dare, then, call Oh Tall Tree in the Ear a classic?
Grab that vinyl passenger seat and listen close: it is. Opener “Eden Was a Garden” comes tumbling out with crystal-clear chiming guitars and a big chorus, punctuated by acoustic interludes that showcase the uncommon strength of Skip Matheny’s vocal and lyrical punch. Next, “One More Road” sets a familiar scene — “Baby let’s take a ride tonight / Just you and me and the dancehall light” — and, with each verse, further mines snapshots from a variety of road excursions. It concludes with the romantic hobo’s daydream: “Every place we end up / Seems to lead to one more road”. Echoing the best scribes, the band captures familiar archetypes (“Big Light”, “A Heartbeat”), builds on their resonance, and then presents each in a recognizable and yet compelling sonic context.
Must-hear single “Why Modern Radio is A-OK” seems to have served as the band’s mantra in the making of this, its sophomore album. Citing a time when “a pop song used to be a powerful thing” and “ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls”, while referencing a spectacular jukebox full of Dylan, Cooke, Morrison, Young and “Johnny & June”, Matheny details, tongue fully in cheek, why modern radio really isn’t all that A-OK. In fact, eschewing the classics for modern radio would be “like trad[ing] a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham for a broke-down Datsun”.
As the album winds down, “I Was a Fool” offers late-night, slow-burn soul with a touch of vibraphone and Rhodes. Then, after the last-call music-box mystery “Starting from Scratch” is resolved, Roman Candle ups the volume to ponder the legacy and durability of songs in closer “Early Aubade”. A meaningful couplet to ponder can only improve the heft of a great lick: “And the last thing we’ll leave is a love song for this vacant room sunk in the walls / And trapped like the ocean enshelled — with everything else we ever exhaled”.
Throughout these 11 tracks, Roman Candle shows that it isn’t a throwback retro-rock-revival outfit, nor is the four-piece trying to be North Carolina’s Radiohead. Oh Tall Tree in the Ear offers a simple strength undiluted by studio wonkery and meandering experimentalism, and reminds the listener how unusual it is to find such refreshingly unfussy and potent rock and roll. You’ll do well to let Oh Tall Tree in the Ear resonate — it is an inherently listenable, masterful work from a mature band, and one that you’ll file alongside the greats on your shelf.
Yep, I like it.