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Published: 2010/10/18
by Brian Robbins

Railroad Earth
Railroad Earth

Woodstock Records

Railroad Earth’s new self-titled album (their sixth release/fifth studio effort) finds them chugging down the same track they’ve been on since 2001’s The Black Bear Sessions, evolving their sound while still managing to sound like themselves. Which is a good thing.

Three new steps of evolution make themselves known with your initial listen to Railroad Earth. First, though the departure of longtime bassist Johnny Grubb left some seriously big and bottom-heavy shoes to fill, Andrew Altman has definitely risen to the occasion. Altman (whose resume includes stints with Blueground Undergrass and The Codetalkers) proves himself to be not only a good man on the upright, but brings a new texture to RRE’s sound with some fine electric bass playing, as well. Combining the rock-steadiness of his predecessor with the adventurousness of, say, Rob Wasserman, Altman has managed to add new color to the band’s foundation in a short period of time.

Another new texture in the instrumental side of things is the presence of a little more electric guitar on Railroad Earth – again, not in a radically different manner, but in a way that adds texture in places you never thought might benefit from it. Don’t be scared, long-time Hoboes: there’s still plenty of the sweet acoustic sound you’ve come to know, love, and expect from RRE (we’ll talk about some of that in a minute), but there are moments on the new album that are all the better for having the extra wallop. For example, the emotion of “Black Elk Speaks” just wouldn’t be the same without the layers of bad-mojo-and-tremolo-soaked guitars (think Creedence’s “Run Through The Jungle” only scarier). Elsewhere, “Long Walk Home” benefits from some tastefully-applied bits of Some Girls-era Stonesiness, while Andy Goessling’s lovely lap steel work on “Lone Croft Farewell” seals the deal on the song’s sad message.

Thirdly, producer Angelo Montrone takes advantage of having a band’s-worth of vocalists, stacking them up and making use of them throughout the album. A prime example is “The Jupiter & The 119”, (a stirring 8-minute crash-course in the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, where the background chorus helps paint the picture like a well-chosen movie cast.

Lead vocalist and guitarist Todd Sheaffer is in fine form throughout Railroad Earth (what is the secret to the spacey tone he gets with his old Martin on some of those leads?), even taking a one-man-show shift on “Day On The Sand”. As mentioned, Altman and drummer Cary Harmon join forces as if they’ve been doing it for a long while. (Catch the slightly Caribbean-flavored passage that starts at the 2:55 mark of “Too Much Information” – acoustic bass/drums heaven!) Meanwhile, the trio of Goessling (give that man anything with strings), mandolinist John Skehan, and fiddler/guitarist Tim Carbone continue to develop their already-scary musical ESP. While the band as a whole excels at formation flying (witness the epic “Spring-Heeled Jack” a live-in-the-studio jam where no single player takes a solo – the instruments simply have conversations) the Carbone/Goessling/Skehan trio operates like one brain with many string plinking/plucking/bowing limbs. Perhaps the sweetest moment on Railroad Earth is the intro to “Jupiter” where Skehan’s mando and Goessling’s gentle banjo improvise a slow dance while Carbone’s fiddle does its best to break your heart. It’s just plain exquisite.

Railroad Earth is sound of a band that continues to mature without getting old.

The train rolls on.

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