John Metzger's #14 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2008, Volume 15, #7
Written by John Metzger
Fri July 11, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
No one expects a demo album to become a successful debut, at least not without its undergoing further refinement in a recording studio. Itís a good thing when this happens, of course, but the repercussions have the potential to skew a bandís perspective, the effects of which can linger for years. To its credit, Railroad Earth has done an admirable job of navigating through these tricky waters without losing itself in the process. Propelled by the one-two punch of The Black Bear Sessions and its first proper effort Bird in a House, the ascent of the New Jersey-based outfit was rapid, which left it with little time to contemplate its options and plan for its future.
Railroad Earthís growing pains became most evident on its third endeavor The Good Life, which frequently felt forced and unnatural. At the same time, though, it also contained plenty of indications that the groupís fall from grace would be brief, if only it could find a few moments to reassess its situation. Wisely, Railroad Earth bought itself some breathing room by turning to the industry staple of a concert set for its fourth endeavor. Tellingly, Elko proved to be the tonic that cured the band.
With its latest album Amen Corner, Railroad Earth has come home, both literally and figuratively, to the effortless acoustic grooves that made The Black Bear Sessions so special. There are no sound effects or studio gimmicks present on the outing. The loose, pressure-free atmosphere that resulted from the group having set up shop in Todd Sheafferís New Jersey home gives the collection all of the magical sparkle and polish that it needs. To put it simply, Railroad Earth hasnít sounded this comfortable or this happy-go-lucky in quite some time.
Much as its title suggests, Amen Corner is a rather joyous affair. Although its songs deal with the age-old issues of sin and salvation, they arenít clouded in the darkness of desperation and bad luck. Instead, they burst with optimism, casting warm rays of radiant sunshine outward from their core. The perspective here is one of survival, but rather than exuding the weariness that comes at the end of a long journey, the material adopts the healing, spiritual air of a giddy, life-affirming celebration.
Hard Liviní, for example, is a horn-dappled, Sunday morning revival, while the furiously driving bluegrass of Bringing My Baby Back Home provides an exuberant depiction of a relationship on the mend. Elsewhere, Railroad Earth memorializes its makeshift recording studio with the instrumental jam Lonecroft Ramble, and on Líil Bit Oí Me, the collective lovingly welcomes the children that had been born to three of its members in the preceding months.
Considering how strong The Black Bear Sessions was, Railroad Earth undoubtedly is a band that had a lot of potential right from the outset. Some might say it was wise beyond its years. Still, thereís a certain level of maturity to Amen Corner that wasnít necessarily present on its early works. In fact, as it progressed from Bird in a House to The Good Life, Railroad Earth seemed to cede some of the ground it initially had claimed. Amen Corner thankfully reverses this trend. Both musically and lyrically, it is more relaxed and more confident than anything that the group has produced to date. In fact, Railroad Earthís penchant for recasting the Grateful Dead as a string band has come full-circle, only this time the collective has made this concept completely its own.
Of Further Interest...
Amen Corner is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box