- Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck
Now, I’m going to say the word “banjo” pretty soon and I don’t want you to immediately go, “Oh – bluegrass!” and think you have the sound of Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck’s Eden album figured out, boys and girls. ‘Cause you won’t even be close.
Thayer wields a banjo, true enough (along with turns at the guitar, some piano, and even strapping on a bass for one tune), but he employs it with his own style, shapeshifting from playing rhythm partner to Jeremy Curtis’ bass and Jeff Berlin’s drums to flying melodic formations with James Rohr’s keys and the pedal steel of Chris McGandy – it’s simply part of the mix. The overall effect is a band that never spotlights any individual player – rather, the individual players work together to spotlight a mood, groove, or theme. Eden is their latest accomplishment, and it’s a dandy piece of work.
You may no doubt recognize Justin Guip’s name as the longtime master of sound at Levon Helm’s Barn; here, co-producer/engineer Guip proves he can work his magic in any setting presented to him, having recorded and mixed Eden in a number of locations in New England. Thayer and company have a big sound – full of well-constructed melodies and textured rhythms – but Guip never lets them get out of reach or sound anything but warm and immediate. He’s the perfect man for the job at hand.
The most unique bit of mixing may very well be on “A Bad Day At The Zoo”, where Berlin’s drum kit feels like it’s right here and the gentle jazz/funk of the guitar/bass/keys and vocals are back there … eventually the rest of the band edges a little closer and the drums ease back – but still hold their ground in a most quirky and cool manner. Speaking of drums, Berlin and Curtis’ bass team up to lay down an absolutely ominous and tension-filled foundation for “Trails”: it takes no time for them make the hair stand up on your neck – and when Thayer’s banjo barks for the first time, it sounds/feels like a switchblade snapping open.
The album-opening “The Beauty Of All Things” soars like an album opener should (think dada’s “Dizz Knee Land” only cooler and deeper) while the opening moments of “Wreckoning” feature Thayer’s angular banjo against drums, tumble-down bass, and roaring organ – things feel unsettled, but just shy of the one-minute market they slam into place and never look back. “12 Inch Steel” (featuring some fiddle by guest Patrick Ross) comes the closest to sounding like traditional string band piece, but is still its own critter with Berlin’s thunder-down-the-mountain drums, then Thayer’s vocal arriving on the scene piped in from Howlin’ Wolf’s grave. “Blackstone Valley” captures some of the vibe of early Grand Funk Railroad, combines it with a palmful of Marshall Tucker, and then goes a long way beyond on the wings of McGandy’s pedal steel.
The 13-minute epic “Parallel Lives” is a 4-part mini-series for your head: big pictures accentuated by the darkest of darks (catch the moment when the scenery shifts between “The Big Brass Band Theory” and “Carbon Creatures”) and the lightest of lights (kneel down and wash your face in the burbling stream of pedal steel and piano that runs through the instrumental “Joy Ride”) on its way to making you think.
By the time you reach “Happy Ending” (on one hand aptly named; on the other, a cruel joke) on the far end of things, you’ve covered some serious distance with Mr. Thayer and his friends. This is the sort of music that will infect you on the first pass while offering still more with repeated listenings: well-written and well-played rural free delivery soul with its sleeves rolled up.
“May your dreams have mercy on you,” Thayer sings towards the end of the “Parallel Lives” suite.
And to you as well, sir.
Brian Robbins kneels down and washes his face over at www.brian-robbins.com.