With their new release God, Sin, Whiskey, and Women, Iowa City's Tallgrass crafts a refreshing twist on some familiar musical territory. It is a soundtrack of leather saddlebags, a sun-faded cattleman's duster and barbwire slowly taming a wild prairie. Just like the recent remake of the western 3:10 to Yuma, these songs retain enough of the original to keep it in comfortable territory, but offer up enough contemporary flair to make it interesting. I really hope somewhere Johnny Depp is preparing to make a movie for these songs.
Lydelai, the first track, sets the scene with tympanic rumblings and distant jangles, like thunder and storm clouds building across the high plains prairie. Matt Skinner's voice beckons like a dusty stagecoach oracle, urging wandering buffalo herds to waltz across the middle border. This is Iowa music and the similarities between Matt's voice and that of raising folk star William Elliott Whitmore can't go without mention. However, Matt puts his own stamp on the sound with some unusual dialecticisms and haunting high harmonies from bassist Austin Morford add a ghosts in the mine shaft texture.
There is an atypical perfectness of the percussion - it makes this record gallop, trot and canter in a way that makes the recording unique. It is obvious that drummer Adam Morford is a meticulous musician who takes time to craft sounds. It is refreshing to hear drums tuned to fit songs, and cymbals sounds coaxed with gentle mallets. These tribal polyrhythms, often without the typical snare/kick drum/hi-hat formulations provide wonderful counter-point for the other instruments to dance around.
With it's banjo and harmonica, Man Who Forgets It All starts out like straight-up modern bluegrass - think Steel Drivers, or Old Crow Medicine Show, but after the song's intro the banjo heads into seldom charted jazz intervals and jammy breaks. The melody lines are positively refreshing. It breaks right into Sad Side, a tense shuffle with handclaps that goes in several different directions, including a funky bass break (I swear there is some Bootsy Collins in there) with two independent bass lines.
There is an undeniable thread of rootsy americana music stylings that stitch these songs together, but to my ear, there are definite underpinnings of 90's alt-rock influences. Vocal phrasings reminiscent of Dave Matthews early work, Eddie Vedder's growl and even some Jane's Addiction melodies and guitar rhythms as on the Tall Grass song Alive.
If you're a jaded music lover who is tired of knowing where a song is going before the first chorus is finished, you'll love the subtle musical surprises in this album. The music is just familiar enough to lull you into a practiced enjoyment, then, WHAM, you realize that the stagecoach lurched left, where you thought it would turn right, and all the listener can say is "damn".
With the last song on the album, the sun sets and Wasted Song plays as they roll the credits. WIth slight shades of M. Ward or Sufijan Stephens, it is the perfect closer. To me, it shouts out, "to be continued…" and I hope it is.
Check out Tallgrass here… http://tallgrassband.com/
Todd Partridge has been active in the Iowa music community for over 25 years, performing original music with several Iowa Rock/Blues/Roots music groups and recording music at Old School Studios - a recording studio set up in an 90 year old, 3-story brick school building. Currently, he is finishing a new album with his band King Of The Tramps.