by Chris Familton
People who say they hate country music have generally only been exposed to crass country pop, that shallow veneer that exists on the surface of a genre that has much more to offer. Real country music, whether it be outlaw country, alt-country, americana or tex-mex, has deep, rich roots both historically and in terms of its ability to convey human emotion – a direct line to the heart. Country music in New Zealand has always been popular but at a fairly underground level so it is refreshing to see, in the wake of the americana renaissance of the last decade, a growing number of quality acts getting the attention they deserve.
Everything So Far feels like the peak and culmination of Bernie Griffen’s musical work to date, even though he has been writing and performing music and chronicling the sounds of americana for years with his Border Radio show on 95bFM. Griffen enlisted Karl Steven (Heart Attack Alley, Drab Doo-Riffs, Supergroove) and Nick Bollinger as producers and surrounded himself with great, authentic players in The Grifters, important elements that combined to produce an album that feels honest, poetic and uncompromising and sounds fantastic.
The centrepiece of the album is 29 Diamonds, the tragic tale of the Pike River miners and the only track to have its lyrics printed in the liner notes. Griffen announces lines like ’29 dead for a chunk of coal’ and ‘Broke a township’s soul’ with newspaper headline efficiency allowing the listener to linger on each sentence and feel their emotional weight. It is pretty soon for songs like this to be emerging but that is what country music does so well, it dials into raw heartache and treats it with respect. The celtic treatment with fiddle and banjo works wonderfully, evoking the hills and landscape where the tragedy took place and giving the songs an Appalachian bent.
Though much of the album deals in dark subject matter it doesn’t cloak everything in morbid strumming, instead it kicks up its heels on songs like Friday Night (Camping Song), an energetic shuffle that alludes to the economic woes of the world, bank foreclosures and financial protests and inject some sultry swing onDangerous Engines with its smoky jazz undertones. It is moments like these that highlight the diversity that Griffen has scattered across the record.
As a singer Griffen is more of the storyteller school where character and poetry are far more important than pure singing ability. Age, lifestyle and experience have no doubt all played their part in shaping his grainy voice that manages to sound strong and fragile, often at the same time. Southwest Gale has shades of Nick Cave’s gothic croon while on the opener Sometimes I Feel So Sad Griffen shifts from a shaky and trembling voice in the verses to an assured and strongly delivered chorus. He may have a limited range but he sure knows how to use every inch of it.
Everything So Far is starting to get the attention it deserves outside the local americana music community and that is testament to the maturity and tenderness of his songs and the quality of musicianship that frames and delivers them. Bernie Griffen & The Grifters have produced a landmark album in the evolving story of New Zealand country music.