Strangefolk recently signed their first record deal with Mammoth Records. After the signing, they re-released their most recent studio effort, Weightless in Water, through the label and added a CD-ROM including pictures, video and lyrics. Strangefolk is a unique band in that they write catchy songs with great vocal harmonies, yet in the live setting they have the ability to stretch out with open-ended jams. On their latest album, there is a blend of both, although it is more song-oriented. “Roads” is the first track on the CD, and has a combination of upbeat rock and folk. The chorus stuck in my mind as a metaphor for Strangefolk’s growth as a band, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll get there. Sometimes I’m wonderin’, where will it be?” Next, is “Whatever”, which lead guitarist Jon Trafton sings. I particularly enjoy the featured guitar riff in this tune coupled with fellow Burlington, Vermont resident Gordon Stone on Pedal Steel. The culmination of “Whatever” becomes a layered bed of over-dubbed vocals and guitar licks that serve as an exclamation point to the song. This is evidence of Strangefolk’s willingness to utilize the advantages of studio recording, something that many young, jam-oriented bands seem to neglect. For some reason, out of all the songs on the album, this one has stuck in my head all day.
“All the Same” is one of my favorite songs on the album. It is bass player, Eric Glockler’s song. It has a very uplifting pulse to it, due to the pedal-point created by Glockler’s driving bass. While the bass line stays “all the same” throughout the song, Trafton plays a riff that gives the song a circular feel to it, leading up to the heavy guitar of the chorus. I found myself bobbing my head as I drank my morning coffee during this tune. It put an early morning smile on my face. “Valhalla” is another feel good, well-crafted ditty. Lead singer, Reid Genauer’s voice is powerful, yet soothing. Trafton adds a guitar riff that is also cleverly looped on the “pictures” section of the CD-ROM. “Furnace” features the first extended jam of the album and does not disappoint. It also has some very interesting lyrics. Trafton gets a unique “ruff around the edges” sound out of his acoustic-electric. The vocal harmonies on this track are beautiful. Strangefolk successfully capture their live sound in this song. “Who I Am” is another Glockler song. The vocals are processed to sound like they’re being sung through a mega-phone (think Beasties Boys’ “Sabatoge”). The lyrics are very insightful and I particularly like the line, “You know damn well who I am, you just don’t know yourself.” The track also features guest, Brian Bull on the B-3 Hammond organ.
“Westerly” is a live epic. It is an example of a simple chord progression that can be turned into the foundation for a soaring jam. The album version is obviously shorter than most live renditions. Once again, the harmonies are very impressive and give way to another one of Trafton’s surging solos that Glockler locks up with nicely. Genauer also shows off his vocal range by belting out a few high notes.
“Elixir” offers the album’s namesake, “Weightless in Water”, in the opening line. Appropriately, there are some sound effects “sunk” in the mix as well as some slinky percussion. I enjoy hearing songs that I’ve heard many times live, with studio enhanced parts. Listening to the album also gave me an opportunity to pay attention to the lyrics, which I usually miss in the live setting. A line in “Elixir” that I could relate to is “You learn more from whispers than you do from spoken word”.
“Sad” could be a radio single. It’s a beautiful Glockler song with more perfect three-part harmonies. Out of all the songs on the album, this one jumped out as a mainstream-sounding song. Don’t get me wrong, I like the song. It just has a certain “poppy” feel to it. Gordon Stone again adds pedal steel.
“Otis” has been one of my favorite Strangefolk songs since I first heard it. It’s your traditional upbeat bluegrass romp. It was the first song I put on when I got the album. Right away, I was disappointed. Unfortunately, they tried to do too much with it in the studio. It sounds too cluttered. There are too many parts in the mix. Stone overdubbed at least two banjo parts, both finger-picking and strumming. There are also several guitar tracks. The song needs room to breath. There’ s not enough space. I really dig this tune, but this version doesn’t work. I look forward to seeing this song live again soon.
“Oxbow” rounds out the album with a live-sounding feel to it. I really wish Strangefolk would write more songs like this. It is the only song on the album that I really noticed drummer, Luke Smith stepping into the spotlight. Smith has a lot of talent and I’ve always wished that he would be featured more in the context of Strangefolk’s all around sound (“Let Luke Play!”). “Oxbow” showcases the band’s ability to interact with each other and really stretch out. Both Smith and Glockler compliment Trafton’s soloing more in this jam than elsewhere on the album. The jam has peaks and valleys. It is a great way to close the album. The CD-ROM features live concert videos of “Roads”, “Westerly” and “Whatever”. It’s a single camera shoot from the front of house. While it would have been nice to see some close ups of the band, the sound quality is excellent. The CD-ROM also includes lyrics to all of the songs on the album and links to both the Strangefolk web site and the Mammoth Records home page. There are also several high-resolution photos of the band.
I highly recommend this album. It successfully showcases the aspects of Strangefolk’s live sound that have made them a national touring success.