Music

Tandy: The Lowdown: 1997-2002

Matt Cibula

Tandy

The Lowdown: 1997-2002

Label: Gammon
US Release Date: 2002-10-29
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

There has been a great alt.country band under our noses the whole time, and their name is Tandy. Headed by American singer-songwriter Mike Ferrio and his Irish drummer, Tom McCrum, Tandy has released three albums in the last five years on teeny-tiny little label Yellow Slipper, before just-kinda-tiny Gammon compiled this best-of disc with 14 tracks from those albums and two brand-new ones. I had never heard of this group before -- but, wow, do I love 'em now. These are some damn fine literate interesting soulful songs, and I hope that The Lowdown can teach people about Tandy the way it taught me.

Tandy started as an eight-piece Lambchop-style ensemble, complete with cello, fiddle, mandolin, dobro/lap steel, and two guitars and tons of special guests, but somehow (just like Lambchop) the tracks from their first two records never sound busy. "Ship to Shore" shows off the interplay between Sibel Firat's cello and the fiddle playing of someone called Miss Darlene, and how those two instruments serve as a beautiful frame for Ferrio's imperfect but affecting voice. "Facing Winter (Alone Again)", also from Tandy's first LP Some Summer's Day, skews much more country, but shows its true rockish roots by stealing Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" harmonica riff and the plaintive poetry of unrhymed lyrics: "Hey down down, below the hard and frozen ground / Ha, I found her cold steel kinda shook my heart / She's so warm in her lover's bed at night tonight / She thinks of me like a stone in her shoe". When Ferrio sings "Never meant to stray so far from home" through a Tom Waits bullhorn in the song "Far From Home", it's more than just the plight of the narrator. This is an impassioned plea for the return of good music made by talented people.

Tandy's second album, Lichtenstein's Oriole, supplies the most ambitious songs for The Lowdown. "The District Doctor" is a fascinating impressionistic short story that I can't quite understand -- something about an illicit romance and pregnancy during a husband's absence. But any narrative confusion entirely justified by its refrain: "Just then she opened up her eyes / Just then he opened up the door". "Bright Brown starts with neo-Dylanesque folk-rock, with lyrics like "When they make that movie / Called Resurrection by Degrees / You'll be stumbling 'cross the screen" but then expands into the soundtrack to that movie, with McCrum's conga-like drum thump and enough sonic detail to keep a listener happy and busy.

But the clear winner of these songs, of the disc as a whole, is "Pictures from China". This song is a list of memories from Ferrio's childhood, or maybe just his narrator's; either way, it's stunning in its portrait of a kid growing up in a small town. "I remember Mr. Starks and my dad fighting / How he knocked my father down / I remember seeing snow fall on the dead leaves / Didn't hardly make a sound". This casual juxtaposition of images, which thoroughly suggests that it was the child who "didn't hardly make a sound" when his father got beaten without saying, is classic Ferrio. But it wouldn't make any sense without the string arrangement, which is almost classical, the jangly guitar sounds, and the carefully voiced backup vocals. And whoever decided to get Dave Van Ronk to sing on the lengthy jam "Lorna Boy" knew what they were doing. He was the guy who taught Dylan to be Dylan, and now he's passing knowledge down to Ferrio, who shares a lot of the same musical DNA.

But simplicity beckoned, and by Tandy's third record, The Bloodroot Transcriptions, the band had been reduced to Ferrio, McCrum, Scott Yoder on bass, and Drew Glackin on various instruments including lap steel and mandolin. These songs are, as you might expect, much more straightforward -- and much more "country" -- than the others, but they all fit right in together. "Fidelis", the opening song on The Lowdown, wears its spareness on its sleeve, with a furious backing vocal by guest Malcolm Holcombe and Glackin's sly sad tough lap steel work. "New Candy Necklace" is a sloppy-tight sea shanty, in love with travel and motion: "If living don't kill me, I'll drink gasoline / To power my emotions, my steps in between / The past and the present, what's felt and what's seen / I suppose you" (a crucial caesura) "know what I mean". It ends by switching to a very strange happiness, a fantasy of childhood friendship encapsulated by the title, and then a slow fade, only to return with a wonderful mandolin coda. Beautiful.

The two new songs? Well, "Eastern Mountain Birds" is the most they rock on this disc, a spooky echoey '70s FM acoustic rock that brings Glackin to the forefront for some brilliant intertwining of lines. But the strangest thing here is the closing cover of America's "Sister Golden Hair". Ferrio goes back to the bullhorn at the beginning, whispering out those old familiar lines while some freaky steel sounds go whipping around. You're thinking, oh, man, they're gonna try to make this all "weird" -- but then everything changes and Tandy busts into the song like it's an old Appalachian classic. Backing vocals and banjo work from stranged-out troubadour Jim White keep threatening to turn things into a Carpenters hoedown . . . but wouldn't that kick some ass? And it does.

Wherever country music is right now, it never really meant to get so far from home. Mike Ferrio is staging a fascinating campaign to find its soul. I'm in for the ride, and I call shotgun. Jump in the back seat and listen while he cranks it up.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.