River City Rebels – Headed to Hell (28 August 2012, Screaming Crow Records)
Hello again, readers, and a happy Wednesday morning to you! My vacation has ended and I’m back to pollute your in-box and/or RSS reader with random ramblings and desultory dialogue.
…and music, of course. After all, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it — to discover some new tunes, not to hear me whine about how lousy my day was at work or whatever?
So then, let’s get straight to it, shall we?
Last week, Screaming Crow put out a record featuring a pair of songs by Vermont’s River City Rebels. Vermont is probably most famous for maple syrup, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and gay marriage.
Musically, the state’s best-known export is the jam band Phish, whose quality songwriting, vocal harmonizing abilities, and improvisational talents have all been overshadowed — like the Grateful Dead before them — by their reputation for being followed across the country by droves of smelly hippies.
Now, I have to admit I didn’t really know anything about the Rebels before I got a copy of this new single, but now that I’ve heard it, the sound is not a huge departure from that of their fellow Green Mountain State brethren. They may not necessarily be classified in the same genre, generally speaking, but these songs are somewhat reminiscent of Phish at their most succinct. (For example, in 1999 the band decided to return to their roots, so to speak, getting together to record in an old farmhouse — and emerging with a collection of some of the most focused and cohesive work in their career, on the album Farmhouse.)
The A-side, “Hades”, recalls (for me, anyway) something like “Winter Winds” by Mumford and Sons. It might be the prominent inclusion of a trumpet part that sparks the mental association, but beyond that, there’s the fact that “Winds” is one of the more upbeat songs on the Sigh No More album, and yet it remains very dark, with melancholy overtones. Similarly, with its singalong refrain of “We’re all headed for Hades, we’re all headed for Hell,” this song seems to exude pessimism while still maintaining some touches of musical levity.
The lead vocals here have a certain feel to them that I’d put in a category with somebody like Dave Pirner: while perhaps not particularly strong, or necessarily 100% on-key all the time, the singing is full of character, in a rather endearing way. In fact, while we’re on the subject, “Hades” probably wouldn’t sound at all out of place among the tracks of Grave Dancers Union, for example.
On the flip side, “Shiny Gun” continues the theme of darkness and melancholy, while also introducing some lovely harmonized backing vocals. These are somewhat in the vein of the harmonies on Phish’s “Wading in the Velvet Sea” or Bob Dylan‘s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — the backing vocals, that is, but thankfully not the lead part, because (in this reviewer’s own humble opinion) regardless of how highly respected he may be as a songwriter, Mr. Dylan certainly belongs near the top of the list of history’s worst singers.
No, the structure and tone of the harmonies (and of the song itself) invite comparison to the Dylan tune, or of some of his work with The Band as his backing band — much like a similar comparison could be made for Old Crow Medicine Show, whose most well-known song (“Wagon Wheel”) was coincidentally adapted from a brief sketch (“Rock Me Mama”) Dylan had originally recorded during the sessions for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — the same film soundtrack for which “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was written and recorded.
Anyway, besides the sound of the vocals, a comparison between the two songs is also apt when considering the subject matter: both “Shiny Gun” and “Knockin'” seem to be sung from the point of view of someone who is very close to death, and the protagonist directly addresses his mother in each. However, whereas Dylan’s lyrics are imploring that the narrator’s guns should be taken and put to rest (“I can’t shoot them anymore”), the River City Rebels’ titular “Shiny Gun” is held tightly in its hero’s hand, as he struggles with the decision whether he’s going to use it or not…
You can pick up your very own copy of Headed to Hell right here — it’s available in black vinyl; magenta vinyl (comes with a sticker featuring the cover art); and a sort of hellfire-looking black/magenta splatter vinyl (shown above, comes with the cover art sticker AND a black denim patch with the band’s logo).