No River City – Cremo the crop
A roots-twang take on U2? Given the diminishing returns of prior efforts to Americana-ize Bono & Co. (take those two Pickin’ On U2 bluegrass tributes — please! — and notwithstanding Dale Ann Bradley’s wonderful turn on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), Atlanta duo No River City was well aware of the fall-on-sword artistic risk that remaking such an iconic outfit might pose.
Yet to songwriter-guitarist-vocalist Drew de Man and his singing and cello-playing partner Terri Kay Onstad, the harrowing junkie portrait “Running To Stand Still”, from The Joshua Tree, seemed perfectly suited, in its dark, acoustic minimalism, to the frequently brooding, autumnal vibe of their full-length debut, This Is Our North Dakota.
The initial plan was to make it a straightforward cover. Instead, explains de Man, the song took an abrupt left turn when the bassist and drummer for the recording session “couldn’t get their heads around it. So it went Palomino/Bakersfield on us — and it was magic.”
Indeed, the new arrangement, deceptively country-rockin’ and sunkissed by a sweet-textured vocal duet, is breathtaking. The combined shock of recognition (at hearing a familiar tune so expertly overhauled as to supplant the original) and juxtaposition wields an uncommon, devastating power over the listener.
This is an album already rife with emotional dynamics. Contrast the dreamy, reverby ballad “Last Thing I Remember” (about blown chances and renewed vows) to the more upbeat “Fainter On My Tongue”, which finds de Man, against a backdrop of strummy guitars and Onstad’s humming cello, ruefully reflecting on a relationship that grew violent and went south. There’s even a second unlikely cover, a cantina-pop/Tex-Mex version of Tom Waits’ “Who Are You?” from Bone Machine.
No River City initially emerged three years ago as part of Atlanta’s “Redneck Underground” scene. De Man and Onstad had previously worked together as accordionist and cellist, respectively, for Slim Chance & the Convicts; de Man, after several abortive stabs at casting his own band first in a traditional country-rock mold and later in a more Son Volt direction, eventually coaxed Onstad into the fold. “That changed everything,” he says. “The real souls of the songs and our performance were extracted from the noise.”
Adds Onstad, “A few years ago at a party, Drew played a few of his songs and I knew instantly I’d love to play with him. I finally got my wish [when] Drew had a picking party that his wife kindly invited me to, and the rest just fell into place. Drew writes songs frequently that make me want to cry. They’re definitely dark lyrics, but for some reason I always feel hope in them. Maybe it’s ’cause I’m on the playing side, so I get to pour out those emotions on other people rather than have it poured on me.”
While the songs on This Is Our North Dakota feature full-band arrangements (producer Alex McCollough played a number of instruments, including bass, guitar and lap steel, with other friends handling drums, keyboards and pedal steel), de Man and Onstad agree that for the time being they feel most comfortable performing as a duo, occasionally inviting additional musicians to gigs as the mood dictates.
Perhaps they’re mindful of another artistic risk these days, that of critical pigeonholing: twang, steel, fiddle, upright bass, guy/gal harmonies — bam, just another fish in the Americana pond. “I’m realizing that while we may benefit in some circles from being categorized, it’s also kind of hobbling us,” de Man acknowledges. “We’re in the classic pre-alternative predicament of an alternative artist who is too ‘this’ for ‘that show’ and too ‘that’ for ‘this show.'”
Onstad allows that the alt-country tag “is one of the closer fits,” but suggests No River City doesn’t really fit neatly under any one label. Just the same, she’s got a handy tag ripe for the picking.
“My favorite description,” quips Onstad, “was when Drew came up with ‘Cremo’ — Country-Emo.”