They took their name from an old Little Feat song which should give you a clue about where they’re coming from. Except that Ben Tunningley, Gaby Szabo and Lyle Zimmerman are from London and their brand of Americana has an unmistakably English edge. There’s a feel to the songwriting on their debut album, Contents May Settle, that is different from the way actual Americans do it.
Gaby’s lead vocals have a bluesy tinge and her harmonica is as authentic as you could wish for but Ben can’t really bring himself to assume a drawl even on a song like ‘Slide, Charlie Brown’ which I guess is about a desert road trip remembered way down the line. It’s good song and I really like the Peanuts reference. Apart from the harmonica, Ragtop Down are essentially a string band although producer Roger Askew adds atmospheric textures when necessary. Over guitars we have mandola, mandolin, cittern and bouzouki and three voices in harmony – I want to say that there is something of The Byrds about them, but that’s not right even with the instrumental jingle-jangle.
The opening track, ‘Fallout Girl’, is excellent with some witty lines. Its protagonist is the girl who just gets the oversight but hangs on picking up the pieces of her man every time her rival destroys him. ‘Black Rose Hill’ is another top track with a sense of tragedy about it that is almost unnerving. I have to say, though, that the best songs here are a co-write and a cover simply because they have a extra feel of authenticity. The co-write is ‘Carry On Cowgirl’ with Anna Robinson, who I presume to be the New Zealand singer/songwriter, and is very good but even better is the closing ‘Fear Of Trains’ by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. It’s a cracking song and I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard it before. Thanks for that, guys.
A couple of times through Contents May Settle and I was nicely hooked. It really does need an open road and the rag top down, though.
Artists’ website: www.ragtopdown.com
‘This Ain’t One’ – live: