I’ve read a lot of reviews of the new Railroad Earth CD, AMEN CORNER, lately, and most of them sound rather canned, using much of the promo material that has paved the way for this long anticipated release by the Jersey Americana sextet. You might get a paragraph or two talking about some of the songs, interspersed with comments from Todd and Grubb, but the meat of the CD hasn’t been touched overly much just yet. Hence this review, which I’m sure will rankle some feathers.
Bottom line, I think the CD is a flawed masterpiece. There are moments of brilliance side-by-side with moments of bleh. However, I do think the positives outweigh the negatives — hence the flawed masterpiece — and I suspect that the tunes I have issues with will iron themselves out in a live setting. However, this CD isn’t targetted at the live setting — it’s meant to get people into the venue to see them, and I think some of the tracks will lose people. Let’s take it track by track for my analysis.
Been Down This Road starts the CD and it’s filled with typical Sheaffer lyrical goodness matching the catchy melody. From the opening line of, “Come around Amen Corner and there she’s standing in the door, staring in the eyes of my poor soul,” you feel as though you’re being welcomed home. I’ve heard Todd say that this tune felt welcoming, hence its placement to start the CD. A smart move, I think. I also predict this will become the new Long Way to Go, used to begin either the first or second set. The live versions I’ve heard have been strong, too, so that’s a plus. A very good way to start an important release.
Things come crashing down on the next track, though. Hard Livin’ is a bold, brash experiment by the band, incorporating Andy’s twin saxes and Timmy’s electric guitar into the mix. While I’ve grown to not want to move past this song in the month or so it’s been streaming, I just can’t sink my teeth into it. It feels like a leftover idea that the band decided to stretch out on. Unfortunately, the song just falls flat to me. This isn’t meant to slight Andy’s sax or Tim’s guitar playing — both are fantastic players, but the material just isn’t right for me.
Bringin’ My Baby Back Home is a welcome relief to me after the previous song. This feels the most bluegrass-y to me of the songs on the CD, with a damned catchy melody line. Andy’s banjo is way up in the mix (yeah, banjo!), Skehan rips a great solo, and I expect to be dancing my ass off to this one for years to come. One of the better songs on the CD, in my opinion.
The Forecast is a different beast entirely. It’s a real mellow tune that has tons of room for the band to spread out and jam, which I suspect will make this really good song into a great one after a few months of playing it in front of crowds. I can see this being paired with tons of tunes via segues and it’s definitely an exciting song in that context. It’s a keeper.
Next up is quite possibly the best song the band has written from the perspective of a movie or tv show soundtrack. Right in Tune hits all the right notes in its comfortable lyrics and melody and why not have it play in a movie? Hell, I’ll write the freakin’ screenplay for a movie named Right in Tune if it gets this song airplay! I love this one.
And then we get Waggin’ the Dog. I dunno, folks. I know a bunch of people like this tune, but it just feels like blech to me. I think the dobro might be too high in the mix and Kim’s thought that it feels too country rings true for me as well. Sure, that will help if they get played on CMT, for example, but how likely is that? The song becomes repetitive to me rather quickly. Now, this may change when I see it live, but it’s just not doing it for me on the CD.
For a few years now, Kim and I have been huge fans of Todd’s lyrics. Early on into this thing we have with RRE, we were talking about the song(s) Todd would write if he ever became a father. We all know he composes the most amazing love songs, so transferring that to a song for a child should be easy, right? Yeah, it is. Little Bit O’ Me is remarkable. With Todd, Johnny and Carey all becoming fathers in the past eighteen or so months, there’s a vibe throughout the album, actually, that talks about children, birth and new life. Todd may have crafted my favorite line of his in this one, “Oh little baby, before you move along, let me fill your cup with a bucket of song.” This song alone makes the CD, I feel. It’s a plus that a bunch more of it is also excellent.
Next up is John’s instrumental, Lonecroft Ramble. Named for the Lonecroft, Todd’s house where the CD was recorded, this song is in 2/2 time, I believe, and it’s the typical awesome Skehan instrumental. My only complaint is its length — more! Of course, now we’re getting bouzouki tunes, so I’m not going to complain too loudly.
From what I’ve read and heard in interviews online, AMEN CORNER wasn’t the first time the band went into the studio since 2004’s THE GOOD LIFE. A year ago this past winter they recorded a bunch of tunes, some of which had been played a while in the live setting or debuted last Spring. For whatever reason, the CD wasn’t released but two tracks found their way onto the new release. Crossing the Gap is the first of the two to appear on this one, and after hearing it live since Sept. of 2005, I have one question: why? Especially since it’s a different version, missing the a capella opening they still add when they perform it live. I like this song a lot, and Timmy’s singing it, so that’s also good. But really, it feels unnecessary to me to include it on this CD, especially since I’m sure there are versions for purchase amongst the live shows you can buy over at LiveDownloads (there are five shows there with the song included — I just checked).
Once past that, though, it’s smooth sailing. All Alone is a masterpiece, capturing for me, everything that makes this band standout from its contemporaries — strong songwriting and instrumentation. You don’t find a better mix out there today than you do with Railroad Earth. It shines here on a song of despair, one perhaps written from a baby’s viewpoint (thanks to the Billy on Earthboard for mentioning this possibility). When you hear Todd singing, “Who’s gonna guide me through? I’m all alone in this world, No one to guide me through, I’m all alone in this world…Without you,” you can feel the sense of loneliness just welling up out of the song. Plus, Todd’s guitar is excellent on this, making me want to see this live often as it’s got that tone of his I absolutely love. I believe this is a Skehan/Sheaffer tune, by the way.
We now come to You Never Know, which I’ve already put up lyrics for here on the site. Another gem by Todd, this one feels exactly right to me. This is Railroad Earth doing what it does best when it’s not charting the reaches of psychedelic space. Great tune, fun lyrics, catchy as all hell. And I’m the person who continues to say that this sounds like it would have fit perfectly on American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead. It has that feel to it, without descending into copycatism. It’s not the Dead — it’s Railroad Earth, doing what they do best. They just happen to share a vibe, which this song encapsulates to me. Can’t go wrong with this one.
Lastly, we get Lovin’ You, the other tune to make it from the scrapped release onto this one. We caught it the first weekend it was being played out live in March of 2007 and I loved it then and I love it now. Whereas I had to ask why Crossing the Gap was included, I don’t with this one. This belongs here. It’s Todd singing yet another great love song, which, frankly, the world needs a little more of when you think about it.
So there you have it, a song-by-song analysis of AMEN CORNER. I’m sure my feelings will change over time, especially once I start catching the tunes live. I mean, I didn’t like Donkey for Sale for a couple years, and now I adore that song. It took hearing it live a couple times to find the vibe. I’m hoping the same thing happens with Hard Livin’ and Waggin’ the Dog. However it plays out, this is the CD the band recorded and released, so it shows where their collective head is at. The new material we saw broken out this Spring, coupled with this, gives us a lot more variation in the catalogue now, and that is always a good thing.
And so, a flawed masterpiece. Some extraordinary tracks coupled with some that leave me unimpressed. The scale tips more on the positive side as indicated by the song-by-song discussion, but at least three of the tunes don’t do it for me, for a full quarter of the CD.
Addendum: Special kudos to Mike Partridge for the outstanding production work on the CD. It sounds as though it were recorded lovingly, which, knowing that Mike is the band’s live sound man, is absolutely true. Mike’s a remarkable sound engineer and it’s great to see him getting his chances to spread his wings.