Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Farewell Drifters

Sometimes, the surge of distortion and monstrous drums are needed to get the blood flowing. In others, the force of a wall of horns or the finely-crafted interplay between a host of instruments expands the boundaries of a given piece of music. But there will always be something refreshing and honest about a group of musicians getting together without the aid of amplification or a kicking rhythm section. This latter sentiment envelops the work of Nashville-based quintet, The Farewell Drifters on their debut offering, Yellow Tag Mondays.

Supposedly formed after lead singer and guitarist Zach Bevill encountered mandolinist Joshua Britt on a Nashville street corner, their chance acquaintance turned into the group's ultimate formation with Britt's younger brother, Clayton, on lead guitar and standup bassist Dean Marold that was not only based on traditional bluegrass and roots folk, but also more melodic influences such as the Beach Boys and Beatles, incorporating their more pop-flavored vocal harmonies into the tight vocals that usually accompany bluegrass arrangements. It's an approach most similar to the sound of the Pure Prairie League's seminal "Amie." After the arrival of fiddler and former Wake Forest debater Christian Sedlemeyer in 2009, the five-piece rounded into an ensemble capable of thoroughly enjoyable original work that bore strong connections to its underlying musical foundations.

Their collective instrumental and vocal prowess is apparent from the outset through "Love We Left Behind," which opens the 14-track collection. Blending Bevill's and the younger Britt's finger-picking acoustic guitars with the elder Britt's mandolin work, the smooth harmonies lay-in early without becoming overwhelming. Sedlemeyer's violin gently underscores the more prominent vocals and pickers, while Marold knows the precise role of standup bass on recordings, namely to be solid and unobtrusive like a dependable stay-at-home defenseman. While Marold certainly seems to have the chops to demonstrate his talents in a live setting, on record the instrument looses its motion and can grow cumbersome, which the group wisely recognizes throughout the album. This is all the more important when there is no dedicated percussionist.

Following-up with the more countrified "Everyone is Talking," the Drifters hit their stride early. It's a beautiful piece, with Bevill's smooth and very listenable lead vocals – sounding much like Moxy Fruvous' Dave Matheson – prove the perfect pivot for the band's fuller harmonies. Sedlemeyer's fiddle parts are strung out with ease, while later guitar and banjo leads add just the right front porch charm. Its easily the best effort on the record and speaks to the sensibilities of McCartney and Brian Wilson to which Bevill and Britt aspire as chief songwriters.

While the album's first couple tracks present a gentler approach to their sound, it wouldn't be a proper bluegrass offering without a few of the foot-tapper variety. The best of these is the record's forth cut, "Sunnyside Drive." With a energetic banjo line leading things off, Bevill also presents his most developed narrative effort, describing "the nanny with the newspaper, and tobacco juice is running down her cheek" in the second verse. While relating the tales of the nanny, pilot, evangelist and the boy collecting baseball cards, he presents a well-meaning glance at Americana without stooping to the preachy and worn cliches of contemporary country music. Likewise, "Virginia Bell" is fit for a jamboree, with more fine banjo, mandolin and fiddle work.

And, of course, no roots music collection is complete without the requisite instrumental, which appears here in the form of "I've Got Your Heart in My Hand, and I'm Gonna Squeeze," with an early dose of Celtic background supplied by Seddlemeyer's fiddle and barn floor sawdust via banjos, mandolins and guitars later on in a tidy two minutes and fifteen seconds.

Come for: "Love We Left Behind"
Stay for: "Everyone is Talking"
You'll be surprised by: "Sunnyside Drive"

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