Sunday, June 08, 2008

Review: Railroad Earth's "Amen Corner"












Railroad Earth
Amen Corner

I first heard Railroad Earth a few years back, soon after the release of the band’s quasi-demo, The Black Bear Sessions. Having no clue what to expect, I popped the disc in my car’s CD player. It scarcely left that spot for an entire summer.

Subsequent releases and relentless touring since then has earned Railroad Earth critical acclaim, endless comparisons to the Grateful Dead, as well as a dedicated following that is likely divided into two basic categories: Bluegrass fans that don’t mind the occasional trip out onto the experimental limb, and jam band fans that also dig a little bluegrass.

When at last I got hold of the band’s forthcoming release, Amen Corner (June 10, SCI Fidelity Records), I was naturally eager to hear the latest work of one of progressive bluegrass’s finest ensembles, and the first track didn’t disappoint. With its piddling, quiet intro that only masks the loud, upbeat tune that it is, “Been Down This Road” displays the remarkable inventiveness that has gotten Railroad Earth this far.

What follows is largely a hit-and-miss effort. Some songs simply fall flat in spite of the band’s always-masterful instrument work. In one case, songwriter Todd Scheaffer employs the standard blues-style AABA lyric structure, something that is so done over that only the best uses of it are effective anymore. Unfortunately, Railroad Earth’s take on it falls somewhat short of that.

Some tracks do achieve Railroad Earth’s delightful blend of sheer creativity and just plain fun melodies, but the album as a whole isn’t much of a showcase of it. The inclusion of horns can’t save “Hard Livin’” and “Waggin’ the Dog” seems low on willpower. Still, the sweet “Little Bit of Me” is as good as Railroad Earth gets.

The stand-out musician on Amen Corner is percussionist Carey Harmon. Where many bluegrass-rooted bands that feature drums rely heavily on tip-tapping, snare, Harmon isn’t afraid to draw more on rock influences and utilize bass-heavy, thumping beats. Of course, the entire band is owed much of the credit for arranging the songs in a way that lets Harmon shine.

Another aspect of Railroad Earth that cannot be ignored (and hasn’t been, as I noted above) is its similarity to the Grateful Dead. While the differences are obvious enough (string band versus rock and roll band), both act’s approaches to music are very similar. What’s more pronounced is Scheaffer’s vocal similarity to Jerry Garcia. Certain phrases are downright eerie as Scheaffer seems to be channeling the late virtuoso in both style and tone, leaving one remembering what is actually the better comparison, Jerry Garcia Band.

Amen Corner has enough material to keep Railroad Earth’s fans twirling for hours on end during their jam-heavy live concerts. If you’re not yet familiar with Railroad Earth, it’s advisable to seek them out, but you may be more impressed if you start with their earlier work.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love hard livin. Not sure what there isnt to like about that song.

Anonymous said...

I agree... This album falls short of what I have come to expect from this band... Nothing really stands out as great... No goosebumps. Despite all the hype... "Lovin you" and "been down this road" are ok though...

Anonymous said...

Their weakest studio effort to date, no doubt. Easy, easy listening, for the most part. Still, I like hearing the band stretch their range with WAGGIN' THE DOG.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I agree that this studio album is the weakest thus far. The quality of the recordings is better than all the other in my opinion. The inclusion of electric guitar and bass along with sax and other less known instruments adds a nice feel.

This album may not grab you the first go-around, but come back in a day or two and you'll find yourself immersed in the subtleties that make this band so fun and so damn talented.

Give it a go in another week if you find your first listen-through flat.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about you all, but I actually think this is their best effort to date! I got an advance copy about a month ago from a friend at radio and I have not been able to stop listening to it at all. I've had it on virtual non-stop play in my car and on my iPod. Every single song is rife with beautiful lyrics and wonderful melodies and arrangements.

I absolutely disagree with this review on every level. My favorite two CD's of theirs are the first and this one...and the playing is far superior on this one!

Anonymous said...

If you're lucky enough to have Comcast On-Demand they've got videos of the band taping several of the songs in the "studio" (a hundred-year-old farmhouse).
I was skeptical about the obvious departure from their previous albums but now I'm convinced. Railroad Earth shines bright!

Anonymous said...

Reading your review leaves me with the same feel that I had for the record after the first listen, especially your comments about "Waggin' The Dog" and "Hard Livin'". These songs are growing on me, though.

There are several instant masterpieces on Amen Corner, three which jump right out, "Little Bit O' Me", "The Forecast" and "All Alone".

All told, I think this is one of those albums that does not jump out at you with a huge first impression (like The Good Life did for me), but will grow on the listener substantially with each subsequent spin in the disc player.

MA said...

Fairly accurate review. I found Amen Corner to be an up and down affair, with the songs I liked on first listen steadily growing on me even more so. The songs I didn't like haven't grown on me and I skip them on a regular basis.

Sound quality is the best of all their releases so far and the supplied DVD footage of RRE being in the studio was a nice bonus.

Overall this is not the "Americana masterpiece" that some are making it out to be, a nice release (heck it's nice to just get some new tunes) but in no way a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

This endeavor is right up there with Music from Big Pink...

Jill said...

RRE is predominantly a performing/touring band. I'm not sure any studio effort is going to capture what this band does. I first heard them open for electric Hot Tuna in 2007 and they blew the main attraction right off the stage. We've been RRE fans ever since.

Anonymous said...

Two years later, do people have the same opinion of "Amen Corner". It still hasn't left my regular rotation and a few of the songs are now RRE favorites of mine. Time sometimes shows how well songs stand up, and this is the case for "Amen Corner"