Having released a solo covers collection in 2016, lead singer Robert Waller returns to the band nest for their first album in five years. The good news is that it’s like they’ve never been away, that familiar country rock sound with its Telecaster reverb and Waller’s vocal drawl picking up seamlessly from where they left off. On the downside, there’s one or two numbers here that may have listeners pushing the skip button on subsequent plays.
However, it takes flight in fine style with album opener ‘Ballad For The Trees’, a tribal drum beat and rhythm anchoring one of their upbeat eco-themed numbers as Waller sings “Here’s a song for the Acacia/Here’s a song for honey bees/Here’s a song just for everyone writing down their dreams.” The title track’s up next, a train time chugging country rhythm driving a song about never quite managing to do the right thing (“I try so hard to do what’s right/But that won’t get me through Friday night”), good intentions shot down by barroom shortcomings, while friends turn a blind eye.
They stay on a roll with the bluesier ‘White Cross’, one of two numbers co-penned by Waller, Paul Lacques and Peter Davies from the Good Intentions, following a similar screwing up theme with lines like “Good times didn’t suit me/I had to taste the pain” and “I know the angels love me/Even though I did them wrong.”
However, then comes ‘Stoned With Melissa’, a rocking number about getting high that put me in mind of the boogie side of early Dr. Hook, singing about smoking weed and watching Trading Places on a black and white TV. Lyrically, it takes a darker swerve towards death as it slows towards the end with a more Creedence ballad musical shape and psychedelic shades, but it doesn’t really stand up to repeat plays. The same holds true for ‘King Of The Rosemead Boogie’, a ZZ Top-like track that probably burns live but doesn’t hold the attention on disc. To this list I’d also add the simply country chug ‘Stop Me’, another number that harks to self-destructive tendencies, a decent enough filler but not strong enough to leave a lasting impression as the album closer, and also ‘Spinning,’ a gossamer-fey psych-folk number about fitful dreams written and sung by drummer Victoria Jacobs but lacking in any substantial colour.
She redeems herself, however, with the playful ‘My Parka Saved Me’, a Shangri La’s pastiche recounting the true teenage years events of how, stoned after breaking up with her boyfriend, she drove out to Lake Michigan and was involved in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, saved from potentially fatal lacerations because she was wearing her brother’s parka. Backed by Danny McGough on organ, Jacobs speaks the narrative, her words then echoed in barroom twang fashion by the band along with the chorus. It’s a playful ditty that goes on to tell how, as the guy had no insurance but owned a liquor store, they sued him and she and her friends got to drink for free, at which point her and Waller’s account of things differ. It’s an amusing number but, ultimately, still a novelty track with a short-term listening lifespan.
The remaining numbers, however, all stand up: ‘Poour Me’ a country honky tonk lament about an overfondness for drink soaked in Dave Zirbel’s pedal steel; the conservation and loss themed gentle roll of ‘Planet Earth’; ‘The Last Man In Tujunga’ a country rocker with hints of CCR, the Rolling Stones (a snatch of ‘Satisfaction’) and Mike Nesmith that recounts breaking up over a mobile phone while a California wildfire flames blaze ever closer.
Two of the stronger numbers, both featuring Dave Markowitz on fiddle and accordionist Richie Lawrence, are loaded towards the end, the mid-tempo strum ‘Tearing Me In Two’ and, the other, sung and penned by producer and guitarist Paul Lacques, the ecological-rotted and Gaelic-infused shades of the slow waltzing ‘The Isolation Mountains’.
Ultimately, it’s not as consistently strong an album as the preceding Mystery Drug, but there’s still ample here to keep the ornithological fanbase happy
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‘Ballad For The Trees’: