Songs from the Tin Shed – Jeff Austin and Chris Castino
Frog Pad Records 104
Not long ago, in these very pages, Jesse Jarnow offered this provocative observation about humor, apropos of the music being performed in our (beloved?) scene: Humor, in the jamband scene, has essentially become a conservative impulse. There is no longer any rebellion in being silly, and – therefore – there is nothing challenged. What's more troubling – since, Lord only knows, rebellion isn't the only thing music can do – is that it becomes an excuse not to develop one's own voice." I include this quote because it is a productive framework for thinking about Jeff Austin and Chris Castino's Songs from the Tin Shed, an album noticeable for its lack of humor.
The reverence with which Austin and Castino treat the genres they're working in – folk, bluegrass and country – doesn't come as a complete surprise. In his studio output with the Yonder Mountain String Band, Austin has tended to hide the impious goofiness that characterizes his live performances with the group; a nice way to think of it is in terms of the Leftover Salmon dichotomy: Drew Emmitt in the studio, Vince Herman onstage. And Castino, whose day job is with The Big Wu, has long shown a skilled dedication to the craftsmanship of songwriting: his songs rarely feel like hastily-erected vehicles for jamming. Here as elsewhere, they reward the listener with fluid arrangements and lyrics that, while only occasionally humorous, are nearly always indicative of a love for language and a respect for its elastic power.
But even still, when two front-men (relatively speaking) from the jamband fraternity get together to record an album, one would expect at least one musical keg-stand apiece. Not here though. There's nary a bit of silliness or debauchery to be found. We've got songs of loneliness and heartbreak (e.g. "Different Day," "My Baby's Gone," "Back of My Mind," "Last Day Waltz") andell, that's about it. No quirky odes to farm animals, psychotic girlfriends or marijuana; this album has the sense of humor of Dean Pritchard in Old School.
I'm inclined to think that this is at least partially attributable to a desire to 'play against type' that functions as a response to what Jarnow has observed in the scene. Regardless of how liberating irreverence can be, once a musician realizes that the scene he is in expects this discourse from his music, it naturally becomes stifling. And since, in the jamband world, the studio album has yet to become a significant source of revenue, it is also the safest area in which to work against the dominant discourse. The album, in other words, has the potential to re-shape the music coming out of the jamband scene in a much more radical way than any new stylistic amalgamation.
As for Songs from the Tin Shed specifically, its pleasant surprises are mostly found in Castino’s half of the hut. This is not to knock Austin’s contributions to the album (his mandolin playing, as always, is superb, though ironically it stands out most prominently on Castino’s re-worked "Flatiron Suite"), but an indication that the music here is much closer to YMSB than The Big Wu, and thus a fan of both bands will likely be drawn to what is new. The two harmonize quite well, but again it is Castino who stands out. "Lonely Yukon Stars," a Riders in the Sky cover which closes the album, allows him to show off his tenor, as well as his yodeling skills, while on Austin’s songs, strangely enough, Castino mainly takes (and nails) the high parts.
The most satisfying original, though, belongs to Austin's "Last Day Waltz," a brooding lament from an itinerant lover to the woman he's left behind. Though the lyrics don't locate it in a specific time or place, the instrumentation (specifically the banjo from fellow YMSB member Adam Ajala) gives the song a late-19th century feel, and thus allows the song two meanings — that of a soldier expressing his determination to survive the war and return to his wife, and of a musician convincing his significant other that he won't let the temptations of the road corrupt his love for her. And even though one may initially think of a Civil War soldier, current events also make possible a more immediate reading. Austin skillfully controls the lyrics just enough to sustain all of the interpretations, each of which is enhanced by the various stringed instruments sounding like lonely and deliberate footsteps walking off into the distance. "Last Day Waltz" is not the kind of song I hear too often from bands in the scene – it's somber, vulnerable and resisting definition lyrically as opposed to musically – which, I would argue, may be a sign that jamband artists haven't run out of ideas or resigned themselves to maintaining the status quo.