Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Railroad Earth

Rating: B+

When I reviewed Toubab Krewe a couple months ago, I lamented the aimlessness of jam-band music and how it often feels like meandering noodling without a point. In a similar vein, I heard an interview with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem where he likened much indie music to baking really impressive models of cakes which no one could eat. Railroad Earth could be categorized as jam music, but you can eat it. Well, maybe not eat it, but it does have substance.

Take the second track on their latest, eponymous album, "The Jupiter and the 119": it's a stirring take on the two trains that first met at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. It's a little more educational than one expects on a music album, but don't let that fool you - it's catchy as heck, with a great bouncy melody. It's followed by the much darker "Black Elk Speaks," which is keyed by a jagged electric guitar riff that runs throughout the track. Eleven-plus minute instrumental jam "Spring-Heeled Jack" (which again, is catchy), is followed by the gorgeous, slow "On the Banks," which features pretty harmonies over the chorus. These are songs, not just excuses to jam out.

Railroad Earth plays a lot of bluegrass festivals (I saw them at Grey Fox and The Festy last year), but they're not really a bluegrass band, despite the presence of traditional instruments like the mandolin and the fiddle. They announce that loud and clear on Railroad Earth, with opener "Long Walk Home" kicking off the album with a burst of electric guitar. Even tracks more driven by the fiddle or mandolin, such as "The Jupiter and the 119," sound more like rock songs with a slight bluegrass tinge.

Ultimately, whether I classify Railroad Earth as a rock, bluegrass, or jam band, I like their music, and this album is a fine example of their work. There aren't too many acts that blend strong songwriting with instrumental wizardry, creative arrangements, and a distinctive sound, but Railroad Earth is one of the few.

Railroad Earth official site

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