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Published: 2001/08/20
by David Gans

The Black Bear Sessions – Railroad Earth

Railroad Earth

Railroad Earth's "The Black Bear Sessions" has everything you
want from a debut CD: rich songs, great ensemble playing and
individual instrumental displays, excellent singing, and a firm
promise of more where that came from.

Built around the songs and singing of Todd Sheaffer, formerly of From
Good Homes, this New Jersey-based acoustic sextet came together in
January of this year and almost immediately started making waves.
Five of the songs on this disc were originally recorded as a demo,
but the quality of the performances and the band's instant momentum
made a full-fledged release appropriate and necessary.

It's hard to avoid recycling musical and lyrical cliches when you're
working in such deeply-traditional genres — even when you're busting
those genres by combining them with other styles. What I admire most
about Donna the Buffalo, Blueground Undergrass, Acoustic Syndicate
and now Railroad Earth is their ability to find new angles on the
venerable scenarios that form the roots of the literature they're
working to advance.

The music on "The Black Bear Sessions" is instantly engaging,
but for a record to stick in my CD player it's got to have stuff
going on below the surface that will reward continued engagement. One
of the ways I know this is a good album is that after several dozen
listens, I feel like I'm just beginning to unpack the ideas in some
of Sheaffer's songs. From the rollicking opener, Head, all the way
through to the wistful and gorgeous Railroad Earth, which closes
the ten-song collection, no two tracks sound much like one another,
and there ain't a throwaway in the bunch.

Lordy Lordy gives a nice turn of phrase to a well-worn hillbilly
theme — the sinner seeking redemption ("Sometimes I believe / I am
open to receive / Some straightenin' on the frame that I been
bendin'") — over an insistent beat that verges on rockabilly. "Seven
Story Mountain" has an almost raga-like feel to it, with a great
groove and a repeating fiddle figure that just insinuates itself into
your mind and stays there. In between Sheaffer's vocals, we hear some
great interplay among the fiddle, Dobro, mandolin and acoustic
guitar. This is the most hypnotic, "jammy" cut on the CD, although
Black Bear has its fair share of instrumental interludes and dreamy
vocal episodes.

Chains is a bright, upbeat, mountain-music excursion with a serious
message that recalls the writings of psychologist Alice Miller ("The
Drama of the Gifted Child", a book that literally changed my life):

Can you find it in the mirror?

Can you find it in your heart?

Look into tomorrow

Do you stop before you start?

Do you find your own voice ringin'

In a voice that you once heard?

Do you recognize the feelings?

Do you recognize the words?

There's the dreamy jazz-grass Black Bear, as cool as a Blue Note
elpee from the fifties but set in the modern American wilderness,
followed by Colorado, which could be a radio hit from the early
'70s when the Eagles and John Denver ruled the airwaves (and that is
not a putdown!). Real Love features harmonica, some
unadulterated sentimentality, and excellent background vocals. The
instrumental Stillwater Getaway, written by mandolinist John Skehan
and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, is pure bluegrass, showing
off the pickin' prowess of Skehan, Goessling and fiddler Tim Carbone
(nice harmonics at the end). Cold Water (the only song from outside
the band) borrows some familiar melodic themes and classic
string-band tricks in service of a funny, self-deprecating portrait
("I look 47 but I'm 24").

The only thing approaching a complaint I can muster about Sheaffer's
singing is that he sounds young, unseasoned. The character of his
songs runs a little deeper than his delivery, which is unusual: much
more common is the musician who can sound "old" without exhibiting
much songwriting depth. Sheaffer's vocal timbre will deepen with
time, and the authority he is already displaying in his songs will
just become more evident in his singing.

"The Black Bear Sessions" is a fine debut for Railroad Earth. I
look forward to hearing lots more from this promising writer and
band, and I can't wait to hear how they string these fine songs
together in concert.

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