Though hardly news to its fans -- it's been around for a number of years -- Switchback is new to me. The core of this Chicago-based outfit is the duo of Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack, loose enough to work both in two acoustic parts and in a larger band configuration. Kanoka is produced by the well-regarded, Texas-based Lloyd Maines, who spices up things with intermittent, perfectly toned steel-guitar licks. The album is constructed loosely around the idea of Western spaces. Trains and tornados roar through the High Plains, cowboys wonder at their lives, lonely wayfarers drink too much and break marriage vows, remote towns die quietly, memories fade. These are all themes well suited to folk and country music.
Except that Switchback has found another language in which to tell these stories, one in which folk, country and rock are discernible but mostly only as accents and influences, not as uniformly defining voices. Not, of course, that this has never been done before; when it is, it's called Americana. It's a genre designation that over time and a fair amount of exposure I've grown not to like very much. The result is too often something that sounds listless, no more deeply grounded than in the pop and rock of two or three decades ago, if that. Arguably worse, Americana artists too often learn how to write songs solely from other singer-songwriters. The results are predictably unedifying. Bob Dylan once remarked that if you want to write songs, you must, first, firmly educate yourself in traditional music. Those old songs survived for a reason.
I don't know to whom FitzGerald and McCormack listen when they aren't performing and recording their own material. Possibly, I would know if I were more conversant in currently popular indie music. Or maybe they've absorbed influences so thoroughly that after switching back through Switchback they appear on wholly other tracks. I can only speak to my own response to what I hear. What I hear are songs that impress me with their solid musicality. I also hear lyrics informed by a smart literary sensitivity. As a general principle, the world's best songs are well-told tales, and Switchback's tales are well told indeed.
If the the titles suggest the broadly familiar, Switchback often surprises. Seeing "High Plains Killers," I half-dreaded the prospect of another ballad about a Charles Starkweather-like serial murderer. But it's not that at all. "Killers" evokes the region's deadly storms, which as dangers go are more clear and present than gun-toting psychopaths adrift on lost highways. On the other hand, I was modestly disappointed that "Van Tassel" concerns the minuscule Wyoming settlement (pop. 9) of that name, not Southern California's notorious George Van Tassel, who having learned the secrets of immortality from space people went on to separate fools from their money by persuading them to invest in a longevity machine. Still and all, the song -- a meditation, ironically enough, on mortality -- is an excellent one.
Though not decked up in a bluegrass arrangement, "Rocky Mountain Express" would do nicely in the hands of a Bobby Osborne. It's one song whose inspiration I think I discern: the Osborne Brothers' "Bluegrass Express."
FitzGerald and McCormack are clear-tenor vocalists, with an appealingly straightforward, unadorned style that carries songs at once romantic and unsentimental. Having lived in Chicago myself, I vividly recall what rural small-town life looked like from that distance (or what it looked like when you were just passing through it). Having lived in a rural small town for many years since then -- one on the eastern edge of the High Plains yet -- I am as unromantic as I am unsentimental about any of it. Still, for a couple of big-city guys, they do a pretty good job of conjuring up a plausible vision of what it's like way out here, in what remains of a West of open spaces.
music review by
27 July 2013
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