october 2009

The Giving Tree Band (from left: Philip Roach, Todd Fink, Eric Fink, Erik Norman, Patrick Burke, Andy Goss): Keep you friends close, and your heart closer

A World Complete

By David McGee


The Giving Tree Band

Crooked Creek Records

Inevitably, comparisons are gong to be made between The Giving Tree Band’s incredible sophomore album, and the Felice Brothers’ masterful—if not masterpiece—from earlier this year, Yonder Is the Clock. These comparisons are not unfounded, but there are striking differences between and defining the two bands’ aesthetic. In the Felice’s world, there is order amidst seeming chaos; the musicians’ shambling, ramshackle, clatter is a clever guise that makes their music, however rootsy, seem unmoored, beholden to no particular sound but that of the ages, and then when you dig into the lyrics you realize its purpose: to bring an aural, Cinemascope grandeur to stories of desperate or striving characters whose adventures play out on a broad historical palette ranging across 20th Century America. In Yonder Is the Clock the mise en scene ranges from Grand Central Station to unnamed, wide open spaces a continent—and perhaps an era—away. The Giving Tree Band works within a narrower framework, striving for a formal unity between music, lyrics, sonics and attitude; they’re more immediately accessible than the Felices, whose embrace by jam band fans automatically turns off a portion of the audience that might be theirs, at least until those naysayers actually listen and find there’s more systemic depth than your average jam band aspires to. In Giving Tree’s music, the formality of the compositions reveals, unabashedly, its roots in traditional bluegrass, country and folk, but you also hear and feel the energy of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll as played acoustically—Roger McGuinn would love this band and want to sit in with it, whereas he would probably admire the Felice Brothers from a distance, for what it’s worth. Dylan? Perhaps the opposite, but he would certainly applaud the GTB’s lyrics (the musicians are credited collectively as writers).

The Giving Tree Band, ‘Peace On the Mountain,’ from the album Great Possessions

But just as the Felices, to their annoyance at times, have been likened to the Band (is it rolling, Bob?), so too are the Chicago-based Giving Tree folks in debt to our Woodstock friends, less so than the Felices, but attention must be paid. The juncture at which the Giving Tree intersects the Band comes in the evocation of a specific time and place, specifically in America; their paths diverge when the GTB evokes not the past but the present, in terms both subtle and vivid. That their album was recorded on solar power is not an inconsequential fact or a gimmick. These musicians have a strong commitment to alternative energy and conservation of natural resources. Whether as a result of that, or being an upshot of a natural symbiosis with the earth, a humble respect for nature and its attendant spirituality courses through the songs—not in a pamphleteering way, mind you, but discreetly; as the album unfolds you become aware of hearing more references to the natural world and to connections between “the Lord above,” to whom Erik Fink so fervently prays in the magnificent “That’s The Time,” and the earth below, which figures so prominently and evocatively in the bucolic, springy “The Stream” and later in “Light From the Sun,” all laconic rhythm and introspective, crying fiddling (courtesy Philip Roach).

On an album containing 18 songs the GTB creates a world complete, with not so much love songs as good natured appeals for love (the lilting “Teaspoon of Sugar”), plenty of heartbreak, arresting ruminations in which characters see their fate inextricably linked to the turning of the earth, and, more than any other topic, bittersweet or urgent reflections on passion long since dissipated except for its lingering, unsettling ache or—or—passion worth saving, at any price. This latter gives rise to, arguably, the album’s philosophical and musical keystone, the aforementioned “That’s the Time,” a hard-driving but soft-edged bluegrass number that breaks fast from the gate behind Todd Fink’s eager banjo and Patrick Burke’s sprightly dobro lines, as Erik Fink, his voice husky, hoarse and suitably ragged, tells of an Illinois girl who bids her parents farewell and “headed out from East Moline/to mountains she had never seen,” on her way to Arkansas where she hoped to “meet a real cowboy some day,” leaving Fink to muse, “That’s the time she went away,” a foreshadowing of many such incidents to come. But the boy she left behind is back home, yearning for her and “she could feel his warmth from miles away,” adding the postscript: “And that’s the time/that she did stray.” This is one of those songs with a streamroller kind of impact; it flattens you with its propulsiveness, and its plot twists make you dizzy. She’s out there, existentially free, romantically chained; he’s right there at home, existentially chained, romantically scarred, battling his instinct to move on with his life, because “time don’t wait for any man,” a thought he allows himself for a split second before uttering in a near-whisper, “Although some days, you go back again.” In the song’s enigmatic final verse, the girl’s brother, having taken on the family farm and more responsibility than he can handle, drinks himself to death. At the close, Fink returns to his curious chorus, both fatalistic and optimistic: “All in all, we’re all long gone,” he vocally shrugs at the outset, sure that after “dark and cold winter nights/sun will rise/and down the long, long road/I’ll be coming home.” However sanguine his attitude, the music rushing relentlessly forward behind him betrays his own anxieties. With the striking of the final, abrupt chord and the looming silence after it, nothing is resolved. Like the fate of the earth, like the fate of anyone living now. Song after song, either subtly or overtly, summons this unsettled feeling—neat endings are not in the GTB playbook.

The Giving Tree Band, ‘Early To Bed’: an upbeat attitude, no matter the fatalistic/optimistic duality cropping up therein

Which is not to suggest the music, or even the words, are depressing and dour. Uplift does reside in the GTB playbook and it arrives in beauty: in the hymn-like choruses “help me to serve/know you” in “Mirror Of the Sea,” a captivating, low-key fusion of folk and pop, thanks in part to Philip Roach’s beautiful violin swoops, in part to the dreamy, floating arrangement (it has a ‘60s feel; in fact, it has the feel of an early Jefferson Airplane song, maybe a rustic outtake from Surrealistic Pillow); in the ebullient, banjo-driven, and velvety, close-harmonized choruses of the muted hoedown titled “Early To Bed” and in Fink’s upbeat attitude, no matter the fatalistic/optimistic duality cropping up therein; and, without question, in the merry mariachi horns adding some south of the border spice to “Pegged,” an otherwise weary lament of a fellow who has only his unfaithful self to blame for being thrown out on the street (“she snuck up behind me/said ‘please don’t lie to me/since when have you been wearing perfume?’”). And sometimes—in, for instance, the atmospheric, midtempo shuffle “All That’s Left”—the beauty is the contrast between John Prine-like aphorisms (is it coincidence that Fink sounds so much like Prine here?) and stark, Dylanesque imagery and lyrical obliqueness that leaves the characters’ fate up for grabs at the end.

The Giving Tree Band, ‘All That’s Left’—The beauty is the contrast between John Prine-like aphorisms and stark, Dylanesque imagery and lyrical obliqueness that leaves the characters’ fate up for grabs at the end.

In the penultimate and closing numbers, both clocking in at six minutes-plus, one a folk hymn mourning unrequited love (“Hard Life to Live”) with a sighing backup chorus and instrumental support by a lone, lonesome acoustic guitar, hesitantly strummed, the other (“Only Good”) a woozy, spacey, angularly constructed and string-enhanced mini-drama with Abbey Road-era Beatles overtones (it wouldn’t have been out of place on the closing medley) in its investigations of love’s true nature and potential (“do you really know what love is/do you really know what love can do/it ain’t something to give to only a few”), the Giving Tree Band reinforces its singular cosmology, questioning, on the one hand, the truth of affection, reaffirming, on the other, the depth of its commitment to, as they sing-chant at the end, “take good care of you.” Now, this could be a solemn vow to the planet, or to a paramour. That it might be both is the paradox of Great Possessions, and the Giving Tree Band is quite happy, thank you, to let us mull its intent as long as we’re not derelict in attending to our own hearts.

Buy it at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024