Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Farewell Drifters – Echo Boom

We've arrived at another repeat profilee, who bring not as much a new sound or direction as steady productivity and a subtle refinement of their approach. After reviewing multiple releases from The Gaslight Anthem, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Southeast Engine, we return to the harmonic roots music of The Farewell Drifters and their sophomore effort, Echo Boom, which was released June 7 on Squeeze Records, a short 355 days following the arrival of their debut (see NMT review for more background on the band). The quick turn-around demonstrates the quintet's prolific nature – appropriate for a group of guys in their mid-20s looking to make it big.

Of course, that same proliferation of new material also suggests that epic shifts in tone or style are not likely, and such is the case on the new record's dozen tracks. In fact, the group is hardly wanting of a new sound, as they aptly left the listener wanting more by the end of Yellow Tag Mondays. There's too few groups that can deftly unite crafty, melodic songwriting in the Brian Wilson tradition with rootsy, mountain music that brushes the boundary of bluegrass and country. So, the Drifters might as well keep at it for our sakes.

The same bright harmonies, hooky choruses and fine display of pickin' that defined their debut album is largely transited intact to the new collection. The opening "Punchline" is sufficiently driving for a lead-off track and easily allows the listener to happily forget the group's permanent lack of a percussionist. Singer and guitarist Zach Bevill once again channels his vocals through the filter of Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin's mid-range baritone (let the line, "I just wanna shine the light that's trying to get out" recall Griffin's similar tone on "A Lifetime.") And, as before, mandolin and fiddle work of Joshua Britt and Christian Sedlemeyer, respectively, is sunny and expertly delivered. Similarly, "Tip of the Iceberg" is jaunty and energetic, with hand claps and Dean Marold's upright bass foundation setting an easy pace for Britt and Sedlemeyer to mosey about, yielding nothing but a carefree, summer afternoon vibe.

"Little Boy" presents the first new, slightly varied trajectory from the debut's approach. The tune's classic yarn of fatherly advice isn't too heady – maybe a bit rote – but also belies Bevill's relative youth in dispensing such sagacity. It's also decidedly down-tempo from the band's standard clip, a trend that will return later in the record. But, first – in the cleanup slot – is the album's finest number, "Heart of a Slave." Marking an ideal fusion of sturdy lyrics and melody from Bevill and full utilization of the group's instrumental and vocal talents, the musicianship doesn't distract from the narrative and the words do not overpower the performance.

At the same time, "We Go Together" highlights the important Celtic influences that were always the foundation of authentic bluegrass and mountain music. In fact, the track's chord progression – largely driven by lead guitarist Clayton Britt – sits nicely alongside the lesser-known cut from previous New Music Tuesdays profilees Great Big Sea, "Demasduit Dream." The two outfits found form an enjoyable pairing on an outdoor concert stage somewhere.

The relatively sparse and quick "I've Had Enough" is good for a quick breather before "A Bed of My Own" returns to the previous course, again with Celtic strains as its signature. "Words" and then later "You Were There" link more closely with the slow and solemn vein of "Little Boy," but even more intentionally ballady. It's not my favorite use of the group's talents, but they're perfectly acceptable. Better are the jangly "Roses" and the brisk "Common Ties," while a sold, if unexceptional cover of Paul Simon's "The Only Living Boy in New York" is a nice parting shot.

Come for: "Punchline"
Stay for: "Heart of a Slave"
You'll be surprised by: "We Go Together"

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