Country-Americana Duo’s 3rd Effort Scrapes the Edge with Finesse & Some Shadows
Believe it or not on the first cut of Adam & I’s new EP “Back in Tennessee,” Adam’s vocal reminds me of one of the best “country” albums I ever heard. It was The The’s Hank Williams-oriented “Hanky Panky,” — specifically “If You’ll Be a Baby to Me.” And my comparison is a very strong recommendation of this new Adam & I collection of countrified oriented, late night journeys through Americana.
This EP kicks off with “Salida,” and it’s cryptically stylish – nice mournful harmonica, soft haunting female vocal by “I” – Andrea Melia takes a back seat on this tune as a lead singer but — her “presence” is evident and once again, this duo works their vocals together magically without being too overpowering.
The track “Honky Tonkin’” by The The is another of the songs that remind me of the approach Adam & I are exploring here and that pleases me because it’s a style I was really impressed with when The The recorded this way. But no other artist ever picked up the gauntlet to pursue this deep resonant style. Adam has that voice and persuasive tone. Since the release of “Honky Tonkin’” The The has gone back to their original style and are not as countrified with a noir edge.
The The’s “Six More Miles,” from that album is also reminiscent of Adam & I and they collectively seem to take this style to another level – a welcome level. While the songs on “Honky Tonkin’” are all Hank Williams covers, Adam & I’s EP continues to provide refreshing original songs – original songs with a hint of the past – not quite dark, but there are shadows. Now don’t misunderstand me, Adam & I are not strange, they’re not pushing any musical envelope of country-folk into some avant garde area. They are basically traditionalists who understand that getting their message across to a new audience in 2016 will require some modification to their showcase. And they succeed in a manner that is not at first obvious to average listeners. But, the attractiveness is under the surface, it’s there, it percolates, and the result – if you know coffee – fills the room with a wonderful aroma. This is what their music provides.
Track two – “Bandwagon,” starts off with a strong melodic, wonderfully recorded harmonica and a rich Andrea Melia vocal. Nolan Verner plays upright bass on this. The only thing I am not a fan of is count offs. That’s fine in a live performance, but on record, drop it. Especially on such a captivating song as this. It can be a distraction especially after repeated listenings. It’s fine if you’re live on stage – as when a big band drummer counts off to a big band explosion — the count off can be an exciting part of the start of a hot song. But not in a mid-tempo country-folk tune that starts off so good musically. If you have to — whisper it and be sure the musicians watch you. Capitalize on the inventiveness of the tune, you don’t need the count off to sound professional. That idea wore off decades ago. The song has muscle on its own and the musicians should know how to watch the leader. You don’t see orchestra conductors doing count offs to a symphony orchestra. This song is a great opening number and it never loses steam. It’s an attention getter. Would motivate an audience to clap their hands and stomp their feet. That’s what you want. Did I say it has a good mandolin in it? Well, it does. A good mandolin. A winner from start to finish.
This next tune has a Sweethearts of the Rodeo type harmonies. Across the board clarity, and Adam & I perform with the precision of The Kennedys (Pete and Maura Kennedy) who are a husband and wife team that have garnered great reviews. Adam & I approach their style with the same jubilance. Buddy and Julie Miller were a little more intense – but they would be another safe bet in the style that Adam & I cultivate. When Adam & I sing together they have a unifying voice – like they always have. But this song is driven by some enthusiastic guitar, a mandolin and ambitious lyrics. There is a lot to appreciate here.
Mandolin playing opens “Icarus,” the third cut and Adam sings again with a confident sincerity. This song is one of the more intense tracks I have heard this duo perform. There is a maturity here that is beginning to be obvious. A mellow, sad violin bows through the song and it’s a well-constructed tale totally apart from anything else Adam & I have done. Emily Nelson plays the cello on this song. This is quite an accomplishment. No over powering, but there is power. Anchored with melancholy but, somehow sounding a little optimistic in its arrangement. “Guard your dreams from the thieves and the lies/ If you’re too scared to fall, you’re too scared to fly/ Take your wings, shake off the dust/ It’s not black and white /what’s safe and what’s dangerous I’d rather be Icarus….*”
This is a favorite. Well-written, performed and composed. This hits one out of the park.
MY only criticism at this junction is that many of the fine songs this duo sings have titles that are way too simplistic, cliché-oriented and deserve better. “Do It,” is sung quite well – old-fashioned the way Richard and Mimi Farina would do it in the 60’s. Guitar has a nice echo on the strings, the voices go together like chocolate pudding and whipped cream. Now the two words in the title suit the tune, but with a little tweaking the song could have had a more captivating title. “You Don’t Know Where You’re Going,” “Do It Right, Then Do It Some More.” Just a little worm on the hook instead of a title used over a hundred times by other artists. I think even The Doors had a song called “Do It,” back in the early 70’s.
Another count off!!! Stop. This next song has a great barrel-house upright piano at the beginning and it bops along beautifully with one of Adam’s BEST vocals. This is another spirited performance, great melody, and the instrumentation is driven by its sheer compelling melody. Nolan Verner returns to play upright bass on this wonderfully rollicking little number. Yeah, it might be more saloon music than today’s commercial fare, but this song “Prettiest Girl on the Dancefloor,” has a great title, and a wonderful feeling. It’s an ideal sing-a-long tune, and that piano is infectious. Great bluesy finale too.
Back to guitars and the opening notes have sentimental value: “I’m Coming Home,” sung once again by Adam is a vivid, polished ballad – written by Adam & I with Rick Tiger — a songwriter the team respects. “Your hand belongs in mine, I’m coming home.” Mandolin is the hook – nice notes, a good riff and performed with gentleness that is inspiring. Andrea’s backup voice drives the token sadness in Adam’s voice. As if the girl he is addressing can “hear” him singing his thoughts. The final song is a perfect ending – and soon I hope this duo can turn out a new full album’s worth of fine songs including maybe, one or two covers to showcase their ability to shape someone else’s songwriting into their style.
As usual, an Adam & I collection always has something that is worth listening to on repeat. This six song collection is all repeat. Just be a little more creative with song titles, be different, use them as bait and not just the obvious words because maybe you said them twice in a song. Read over the lyrics carefully before you title it – somewhere in those words may be a better title for the song. Let it find you. No songs that read: “Do It,” “Hold On,” “Yesterday,” “I Know You,” – this is for kids. Distinguish yourselves. You have the melodies, the lyrics, musicianship and performance. Don’t cheapen the brand even slightly with sweet nothing titles. Make me want to know what the song is about because the title has lassoed me.
The “Back in Tennessee,” EP was produced by Adam & I with M. Allen Parker in Nashville, TN. The CD photos were taken by Jim Crowe (what a daring name…).
Except where noted, all instruments are played by Adam & I – that’s in everything.
*Except where noted all songs written by Adam & I.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / May 2016