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Bird In A House – Railroad Earth

Sugar Hill Records 3956
Upon Railroad Earth’s entrance into the jamband/bluegrass scene, a range
of comparisons were made by music listeners. Most mentioned a combination of
Old and In the Way and the Grateful Dead circa Workingman’s Dead —
some rather high praise for an unknown unit. With Railroad Earth’s signing
to Sugar Hill Records, the band’s publicity cadre began sending descriptions
of the band, contending, "Imagine a tighter Old and In the Way with less
covers, a more strict adherence to the bluegrass form than String Cheese
Incident, but with all the crossover appeal to rock audiences, the organic
carefree groove of Widespread Panic". Again, quite a panegyric for a
relatively fresh group.
The problems with such comparisons become conspicuous when selecting one
band from the above commentary. By mentioning Old and In the Way, someone
likely forgot about Peter Rowan, David Grisman and Vassar Clements, all of
whom were a part of Old and In the Way. All three were not only decent
singer-songwriters, but also were craftsmen at their chosen disciplines upon
the band’s 1973 commencement. Rowan had begun to reinvent the American West
in timeless songs such as "Walls of Time." Grisman and Clements had
performed with various ensembles resulting in widespread fame in the
resurgent folk scene. Just before Old and In the Way, Grisman had already
begun ruminating on reviving the music of Grappelli and Reinhardt, a legacy
he still wields in modernity. No one in Railroad Earth – though some might
mention Todd Sheaffer’s Roger McGuinn merits – entered the band with the
bluegrass/folk rmf Rowan, Clements and Grisman pre-Old and In the Way.
Which explains why the bluegrass moments on Bird in a House, such as
"Pack a Day," sound somewhat egregious: these are rock musicians performing
on bluegrass instruments. For a rock audience, the celerity and inclusion of
banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle might warrant a bluegrass title, but the
playing often prevents the music from solidifying such an assumption. At
times, the banjo falls out of rhythm, or the mandolin chop becomes deflated.
These are two lucid, reoccurring examples of the band’s lack of a bluegrass
However, the addition of effect-laden shouts on "Pack a Day" expose the
bands true proficiency in creating rock music with bluegrass strains rather
than vice-versa. When the band performs tracks such as "Bird in a House" or
"Smiling Like A Buddha", the success rate increases dramatically. Despite
the overt ambitiousness of "Smiling Like a Buddha", with a failed Beatles
bridge, the piece itself displays the band’s ability on a myriad of
instruments from woodwinds to fiddles. The music sways, an ostensible
amalgamation of the Dave Matthews Band’s "Recently" and the String Cheese
Incident’s "Little Hands", and thus standing out. The title track, "Bird in
a House", becomes equally successful, with a blend of Workingman’s
Dead-era songwriting and agrarian themes and metaphors. Though somewhat
antiquated, with a late ’60s aura, the music works far better than the overt
attempts at bluegrass.
In one area, the band actually appears to live up to the lofty references:
songwriting. Regarding lyrical content, Todd Sheaffer should be commended
for writing intriguing songs, which typically resolve some of the less
spectacular playing. By expurgating the song for the jam, the music within
the jamband scene has suffered immeasurably. Refreshingly, Railroad Earth
offers intellectual fare rather than tautological, techno-inspired jamming,
where no song ever existed or desires to exist. A line such as, "‘I want to
sing my own song that’s all’, said the bird as he smashed from wall to wall"
epitomizes Sheaffer’s literary prowess, where societal restraints and
humanism are veiled in astute tropes. In melding Robert Burns-inspired
metaphors with Robert Hunter’s melodies and poetic rests, Bird in a
House offers an album flush with some of the finer songwriting in the
jamband scene.
Overall, Bird in a House has a granola chewing, barefoot vibe
reminiscent of Strangefolk’s past bluegrass attempts, where an earthbound
perspective subsumes rock music with blithe, Appalachian elements. Much like
Weightless in Water’s "Otis", the album sounds like rock musicians
performing with bluegrass tendencies, which explicates some of the
aforementioned, technical flaws. However, most whom listen to Railroad Earth
or pontificate about their merits probably either: 1.) don’t care about the
technical and accept the visceral approach to listening, 2.) are not bluegrass experts and will not question the authenticity of the
performances or 3.) will likely find the lyrics pensive enough to wait until
the band’s musical talents are tantamount to the songwriting.

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