The Music Box's #7 concert recording of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2006, Volume 13, #3
Written by John Metzger
Railroad Earth’s debut (The Black Bear Sessions) may have begun its life as a demo, but when completed, it served as a remarkably well-crafted outing that was full of vim, vigor, and old-fashioned charm. With the release of its uneven third effort The Good Life in 2004, however, the group seemed to be struggling with making the transition into the next phase of its career. Faced with similar circumstances, most ensembles take stock of where they have been by issuing some sort of retrospective package with the hope that in reconnecting with their past, they will cure whatever is ailing them. Rarely, do they succeed — at least not nearly as well as Railroad Earth has with its latest project Elko.
Whether by circumstance or intent, Elko’s opening track Long Way to Go blatantly acknowledges Railroad Earth’s recent travails, and placing all of its cards on the table so early in the game effectively lifts the burden that had been weighing so heavily upon the ensemble. Hardly content simply to regurgitate its material, Railroad Earth uses Elko to fully re-imagine some of the finest songs in its canon (as well as several tunes from Todd Sheaffer’s days with From Good Homes) by pushing them far beyond their original incarnations. In the process, it succeeds in rediscovering the adventurous spirit as well as the Grateful Dead-meets-Old & in the Way magic that propelled its initial forays.
Nearly half of the 12 tracks contained on Elko stretch beyond the 10-minute mark, and while this initially might be daunting to newcomers, closer inspection reveals that from its old material, Railroad Earth has sculpted something that is fresh, exciting, and new. There’s a undeniable sense of urgency to its performance, and throughout the set, the group dashes through so many ideas that its music barely can contain them. It boldly navigates the thrilling scenery of Colorado; it gently cushions the beautiful, bucolic refrains of Railroad Earth; it drifts among the swirling currents of The Mighty River; and it inventively transforms Like a Buddha into a whirling, freeform dance. Elsewhere, the ensemble’s tumbling instrumental interplay keeps Head’s spirited, cosmic flight aloft; while Warhead Boogie’s relevant ruminations are ably supported by the driving beat, sharp edges, and dark shadows that are attributed to it by the band.
Considering the woeful state of "jam-band nation," it’s not surprising that Railroad Earth has been trying to distance itself from the scene by categorizing its endeavors as those from an "amplified string band with drums." What separates the group from many of its peers, however, isn’t the instrumentation it employs to deliver its material. The difference lies within Railroad Earth’s very essence. First and foremost, the ensemble actually has songs with which to work, and when it jams, it does so solely to give them color and texture, which inevitably brings them to life. In other words, eclectic improvisation combined with lyrical narrative is Railroad Earth’s heart and soul. It also is what makes Elko such a stellar collection. ˝
Elko is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box