The Robber Barons,
Kerosene Communion
(Home Wreckords, 2006)

The five-member Robber Barons, from San Francisco, evoke memories of a lot of artists -- Bob Dylan, the Band, Fairport Convention, the Grateful Dead and others -- without sounding quite like any of them. They're an essentially acoustic folk-rock band with touches of country, albeit more the old-time-stringband variety than country's later honkytonk iteration. Besides standard rock instruments, Nik Edwards adds accordion, melodica and banjo, while nonmembers Patti Weiss and Mac Martine step forward to provide, respectively, fiddle and pedal steel.

As Dylan's often do, the Barons' original lyrics borrow snippets from old folk songs. Images of trains, ramblers, lonesome roads and winds blowing through pines are dropped into the text next to more opaque verses expressing a plainly more contemporary sensibility. Many of the songs lack clear-cut narratives, existing -- one presumes -- to create moods rather than tell stories. Overall, Kerosene Communion communicates a sense of psychic dissonance, a feeling that one is drifting across a disorienting alternative-reality landscape, with features both familiar and unrecognizable.

No doubt about it, these are talented and capable musicians with the original intelligence to fashion a genre that is almost distinctly their own. The songs are set inside sonic skyscapes where clouds are dark and sunlight dim (e.g., "Bare November Days").

Often, however, one finds oneself admiring the effects more than liking them. The Barons' approach favors emotional distance and a sometimes frosty intellectuality over friendship, intimacy and -- well, yes -- humor, nowhere here in view as far as I can tell.

Communion is undeniably ambitious, accomplished and richly imagined on one side, elusive, occasionally off-putting and frequently impenetrable on the other. All and all, an interesting, albeit frustrating, album that demands more attentive listening than the typical listener will be used to giving, or perhaps willing to give.

by Jerome Clark
10 February 2007

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