A jam-grass band modernizes its sound.
On its new, eponymous CD, Railroad Earth continues to accelerate down the long, winding steel rail. The engines pulling this great line have evolved a bit, moving onward with a more polished, electric approach leading the way, yet the band has not abandoned its acoustic, roots rock leanings. New bassist Andrew Altman brings an electrified thump to the rhythm surrounding the layered, Americana-laced folklore.
While not a radical alteration, the electric guitar on tracks such as opener “Long Walk Home” and the mournful “Lone Craft Farewell” add a somber ambiance, the latter a loving lament to singer Todd Shaeffer’s family home, from which he was driven to make room for an electrical plant, as he sings passionately amidst haunting lap steel from multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling:
“So goodbye bird and bear / Goodbye tree and land
Goodbye to all I know / Like knowin’ the back of my hand
I’ll walk the grounds / And make the rounds of this place I’ve loved so well
Fire up the diesel / Bid a last Lone Croft Farewell”.
The amps are powered up most dramatically on "Black Elk Speaks”, another leaving song, inspired by a book of the same name and written by a Sioux medicine man. It’s a harrowing rock song that relates the tale of a native people being driven from their land, echoed by wailing, tremolo guitar that adds to the resonance:
“White heat / Was on our backs and growing to a flood…
White heat / On our tracks and speaking like a gun…
We fought / Fought ‘til there was nowhere left to go…
And we fell / A pool of red ‘neath passing wheels in mud & snow”.
While Sheaffer’s vocals and lyrics have always been one of many vital instruments in Railroad Earth, here the band utilizes several voices in chorus on tracks such as “Long Walk Home” and “Black Elk Speaks”. And what would a Railroad Earth record be without a train song? The vocalists coo in unison, “Oooo Oooo Oooo”, reflecting a mighty steam engine chooo chooo-ing down the line on “The Jupiter and the 119”, while John Skehan’s dulcet mandolin, Tim Carbone’s fiddle, and Goessling’s banjo add to the rich, layered harmonies.
Two tracks find Sheaffer reflecting on the passing of loved ones, the natural environment, and the healing power of water in particular. “A Day On The Sand” is a beautiful, solo acoustic guitar tone poem, written from the perspective of spending time with a loved one as she/he says goodbye to another loved one:
“A day of redemption / A day on the sand
A shell full of ash / Let it fly from your hand
She’s sailin’ on/ She’s sailin’ on”.
“On The Banks” is a lovely, mellow waltz that celebrates a life lived on the banks of a wild river and amongst a mountainous forest with a loved one -- Skehan’s mandolin is especially sweet here. Railroad Earth brings its tight, live stage prescience and chemistry to the studio for the eleven-and-a-half minute, instrumental foot shuffler, “Spring Heeled Jack”, featuring nimble-fingered picking and Celtic tinged strings held together cohesively by the tight rhythm of drummer Carey Harmon and Altman. And closer “Potter’s Field” is a ghost story inspired by a visit to the Old Man of Storr, a rocky hill on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It relates the story of a Scotsman, who journeyed west to the U.S. in the civil war era after being accused of murder in his homeland. Landing in the south, the traveler joins the ranks, does time, and then wanders west. A mid-song bridge hints that he may have fathered a child who will never know his father:
“Ten little fingers / Ten little toes
Sleep little baby
Will you ever know?
Will you ever know?”
Upon his passing and indigent burial in Potter’s Field, his spirit makes its way back to his homeland and its beautiful treasures. It’s an eloquent folk song, also the most traditionally bluegrass-styled tune on the album.
Long time hobos (aka Railroad Earth fans) may disparage this recording as a turn away from the bands’ roots. Yet it might be wiser to think of the sound of this album as an updated, modernized engine, still running down the same old tracks.