Twilight Tales From the Prairies of the Sun – Steel Train
Steel Train's first full-length release seems the product of docking at Disjunction Junction. What happens at Disjunction Junction? Well, bands pull in and dump every influence in their deck, so listeners can get a true taste of what they sound like. Often, the final product jumbles the musical mood enough to warrant a "to hell with this" reaction. Steel Train, on the other hand, will make you want to ride.
Producer Stephen Barncard (The Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills and Nash) has enough time in his producer's pocket to reign in distinct influences and make them workable. Vocalist/guitarist/pianist Jack Antonoff, guitarist Matthew Goldman, bassist Evan Winiker, drummer Matthias Gruber and vocalist/percussionist Scott Irby-Ranniar (who once starred as Simba in Broadway's Lion King) have what’s necessary in regards to an ability to be emotive and true to all their stylistic morphs.
Second comes song selection and placement. The changes on this album can distract, but it's defeating the purpose to try and get past the chaotic genre changes. After all, the album is entitled Twilight Tales From the Prairies of the Sun. Nothing about that hints at synchronicity or junction at all, which really makes this a total package. The band’s up front from the start: you’re going to get a medley of sounds, and their adeptness at varying styles only means that they have a better chance of surviving a picky music market/ Neapolitan Ice Cream is a wise choice for any party; think about it. Toss in a couple sprinkles like David Grisman (who used the same mandolin he used 32 years ago on American Beauty) and Gene Parsons (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers) on pedal steel and you’ve got a picture hard to turn away from.
"Better Love," "Road Song" and "Dig" (the latter featuring Parsons) start with roots music: country. "Road Song" is the best of the three and fights for top rung on the entire album. It also seems to be a mission statement for the band and their approach. "When I was a little kid, my father told me to see the world for him… send your dad a note. You made it kid, you're on the road," sings Antonoff.
In an upwardly mobile society, it's expected that people will trump their parents monetarily, professionally and optimally, in knowledge base. Music, literature, science, all of this evolves as well, hand in hand with those rocketing societies. Early Western-Classical musicians never thought they'd hear anything like the Blues. What seminal nyambinghi drummer, lounging beside discarded ganja stakes, ever thought he'd influence anything (at all) American? Bluegrass pioneers would be pretty pissed over some of the changes their standards have taken, but who cares? Nothing stays constant; that's a constant.
"The Lee Baby Simms Show: Episode 1" and "The Lee Baby Simms Show: Episode 2" are heavy on Latin flare and Santana-esque guitar solos, as is "Gypsy Waves" (although funkier and more tangential) and "Grace" grinds along like it was ripped from NIN during their prime. "Catch You On the Other Side," written by Antonoff after his sister died and then his cousin's death in Iraq, is pulled along by Grisman's trickle, soon accompanied by Winiker's funk bass grove and Antonoff's saloon-style piano — great stuff!
Parsons can again be heard whining, though very minimally, through the relationship ballad "Blue." "Cellophane and Glass," which sounds something like the Ben Folds Five, is quite beautiful. "W. 95 Street High" has funk bass, jazz guitar and spoken word ripping against the government and finally sounds like Jazz Mandolin Project, but funkier. Ending on a ballad isn't my preference ("I Will Stay Here"), but when a band's talents can overshadow sappiness the way Steel Train's does, even ballads become cool.
I'll check them whenever they pull back into any recording station. I need to see them live, too. Maybe next time the station will be more orderly. If so, it'll probably be a little less interesting, but certainly still worthy of an ear. Fabled Disjunction Junction's effect on bands is truly American, and it's really what keeps styles alive that genre-specific buyers would otherwise overlook. The Grateful Dead paid visits, Phish wallowed deep into its crossroads and bands like Steel Train are today carrying on the tradition by recognizing the roads taken, that have made our music as rich as it is. I can get into most any trip, and Steel Train, it seems, is like-minded.