Regardless, the simple fact is that the lifespan of most bands and performing artists is all too short, the attention span of the average listener all too fickle and fleeting, to the point where a band that doesn’t record and tour on a regular basis is easily neglected, regardless of merit. That’s life; so it goes.
Then again, life is not without its fair share of surprises, and certain forgotten bands, like long-lost friends, have the tendency to crawl back out of the woodwork after long periods of dormancy. A couple beers and a long conversation/listening session later, and it’s like they had never even left.
Just so: Durham folk-pop quartet Bombadil have returned from a lengthy hiatus precipitated by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Daniel Michalak’s ordeal with severe tendonitis, the worsening of which had sidelined Bombadil’s summer 2009 tour in support of their then-current album, Tarpits and Canyonlands.
For many a band, that hiatus might as well have been the end of the line—so long, take care, and thanks for coming out. Yet it seems as though the intervening years have done little to discourage Bombadil’s innate quirkiness and world-weary whimsy. Nattily-dressed as ever, Daniel Michalak’s and Stuart Robinson’s cordial vocals and multi-instrumental flourishes still pair exceptionally well with Bryan Rahija’s deft guitar and James Phillips’ steady percussion, and their not-infrequently odd narratives still use (somewhat less extra)ordinary events and objects as launching points for wistful navel-gazing worthy of J.D. Salinger and Wes Anderson.
True, Bombadil’s third full-length album, All That the Rain Promises, eschews the dour matrimonial ballads, day-dreaming circus bears, metaphorical pyramids, and international affairs of Tarpits and Canyonlands; ditto the effusive history lessons and omnipresent wanderlust of 2008’s A Buzz, a Buzz. But while Bombadil have narrowed their lyrical focus to the real and immediate—heroic cavaliers and revolutionary soldiers unceremoniously replaced by loads of laundry, loaves of bread, and letters misplaced—the results are simply fantastic.
Self-recorded in a barn in Oregon’s Happy Valley, All That the Rain Promises is an intimate offering, its songs of longing, hope, and desperation oft-times relying on little more than an unassuming piano and a quavering voice. “I Will Wait” opens the album with a somber devotional hymn, its as-yet-unanswered prayers for guidance and grace trailing off into the sedated percussion, jangling strings, bent notes, twinkling piano, and belated apologies of “The Pony Express”.
Electrified single “Laundromat” is quite a bit more upbeat than its predecessors, even if its unaffected riffs, infectious chorals, foot-tapping percussion, and rousing harmonica do little to offset the song’s underlying sense of self-defeating complacency and missed opportunities. Similarly, the skiffle-flavoured “Flour Water Sugar” is infused with disappointment, its lonely matron whiling away her unnumbered hours in the kitchen while the preoccupied world passes her by.
Clearing the air somewhat, the craftily interwoven strings of “Avery” are plucked and pulled in ways simultaneously enervating and evocative, peaceful and pensive, heartwarming and haunting, like the sharp scent of ripe apples and rotting vegetation carried on a crisp autumn breeze promising both hot cider and frigid nights in the days to come. It’s a bit short, but doubtless sweeter because of it.
Musically intriguing yet lyrically bland, the inconsolable “Leather Belt” adorns its mixed metaphors—a poetic potpourri of leather belts, acorns, oak trees, and hurricanes—and maudlin sentiments with arrestingly layered vocals, hearty bass, twanging banjo, and bright keys. Later, a laughing, low-mixed conversation about the finer points of shoeing horses leaves the song feeling something like a studio lark that would have been better left as a B-side for a 7” single.
Next up, the endearingly twee “A Question” centers on Robinson’s (intentionally) fumbled phrases and a softly-strummed ukulele as he slowly works up the courage to confess his feelings to an unnamed crush, then hastily backpedals when things go awry. The slow build-up of acoustic guitar, organ-like keys, and improvised percussion lend things a pleasantly off-the-cuff feel, to the point where one could easily imagine the song being performed—that is, acted out—in fantastical rom-com style: Robinson winding his way through a bar and producing a ukulele from thin air, with Michalak, Rahija, and Phillips stepping out from the crowd right on cue. (Amateur music videographers, make it happen.)
Thematically, the light and airy “Good Morning Everyone” hearkens back to early Bombadil cuts like “Jellybean Wine”, its lazy idyll constructed around bright keys, buoyant bass, light percussion, and pleasant chorals. Somewhat unexpectedly, “One Whole Year” ups the funk, taking the bass line for a walk while the drums beat out a military tattoo and an upbeat mix of piano, strings, and horns embolden an already snappy ramble on varying forms of freedom and imprisonment.
Playing off of the somber tone introduced at the outset of All That the Rain Promises, “Short Side of the Wall” reawakens the album’s sense of unease with the future, replacing the earlier appeals to a higher power with a seemingly self-directed call for purpose. Amidst a faintly echoing mix of electric guitar, low-lying bass, brushed snare, ethereal reverb, and hopeful keys, Michalak and Robinson wonder:
“What do you want to be with all that you see? What do you want to have with all that you have done? What do you want to do now that it’s through? For what do you long now that it is gone?”
The answer: a “Unicycle”, apparently—at least, that’s the strange conveyance on which Bombadil ride off into the proverbial sunset of All That the Rain Promises.
“Give me a unicycle dear”, the band declares in unison, “Give me a rubber, dusty keel. Give me an edge that I can feel as I bump up and down the hill.” Which is to say that, if Bombadil are going to do anything, then they’re damned well going to do it in their own way, and certainly at their own pace.
Fair enough. If All That the Rain Promises is any indication, then the end results are well worth the wait.
Set to be released November 8, 2011 on Ramseur Records, All That the Rain Promises can be pre-ordered in digital and CD formats via Bandcamp. Bombadil will also be hosting a pair of CD release parties:
November 12 @ Cat’s Cradle – Carrboro, NC
(w/Future Kings of Nowhere and Jay Kutchma)
November 14 @ Sixth & I Historic Synagogue – Washington, DC
Audio Reviews (October 28th, 2011)
Tags: audio, reviews, bombadil, all that the rain promises, ramseur records