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.