Digging up the past
Tumbling Bones sing sweetly on Loving a Fool
If Believe, the debut full-length from Ghost of Paul Revere, seemed like a haymaker in the scrap for local roots vocal supremacy when it was released in 2013, then Tumbling Bones, with the brand-new Loving a Fool, prove they can take one on the chin and give what-for in their own right.
Of course, such competitions are the constructs of music writers with too much time on their hands, but it’s fun to imagine the two bands going toe to toe. Both take immense care with their harmonic construction, arranging their varied voices to emphasize dynamic range in ways that go beyond the standard way of joining along for the chorus.
Each band threw opening jabs with an early and promising EP. Now Tumbling Bones have followed Ghost’s release earlier this year with a full-length debut of their own, equally impressive in its construction and execution.
While Ghost of Paul Revere lean contemporary with their roots, however, taking their string band in the direction of the Northwest big-string-band sound, Bones lean much more traditional, mining well-formed old-Nashville and bluegrass songwriting. In fact, they go so far as to include a Bill Monroe/Bessie Lee Maudlin tune, “Voice from on High,” that they recorded to sound like it’s issuing from an old cabinet radio, around which a family might have gathered in the days when there wasn’t much else to do after dark.
And it sounds sorta crappy, to tell the truth, like being old-timey just for old-timey’s sake.
Most of the time, though, the band succeed in mining traditional songs and affectations without coming off too precious. Maybe the best indication of this is that their bouncing back and forth between standards and their own works is completely seamless.
Those of you who listen to albums front to back might notice that Kyle Morgan handles vocals and songwriting on the odd songs to open: one, three, five, and seven. Even employed in different stylistic approaches, his voice is hard to miss, like Rufus Wainwright, but with a shit-eating grin while he’s doing it. “Broken Things,” the opener, is the stand-out, with a standard turnaround construction that’s warmly familiar and a flawed protagonist: “A wilted flower, a soiled gown/ She don’t have many unbroken vows.”
If they sound a bit like the Tricky Britches at times, it’s no surprise. They mine the same general back catalog and employ the Britches’ Tyler Leinhardt on the fiddle. On “Broken Things” he’s in unison with Jake Hoffman’s banjo, while on Rotten Belly Blues’ “Money Is for Spending” he trades licks with the electric guitar, introducing the first instrumental break and finishing off the second.
In between, Chris Connors and Tim Findlen rise up the percussion with hand claps and shaker in a way that augments the grit of the electric and is mostly noticeable for the void it leaves when it drops away. It’s part of the same kind of gypsy jazz vibe at which the Burners excel and which the Bones ply also on the minor-fueled “How They’re Rolling,” where Peter Winne just carves the song up with a bracing harmonica.
Winne’s writing contribution is much more mellow, though. “This Time Last Year” is like Elvis doing “Blue Christmas,” just a little bit goofy, but with an edge provided by Findlen’s saw near the finish. It certainly has the feel of a Ringo track on a Beatles album.
The title track, a waltz with a brushed snare to emphasize the time signature, seems more fully in the Bones wheelhouse, with just a flavor of contemporary indie delivery. Morgan gives it just a touch Brit-pop in making “fool” two and three syllables even while Findlen makes his uke sound an awful like a trad bluegrass mandolin.
Really, there’s not much they get wrong, but my taste tends toward their more hard-charging takes. Their two-minute “Bound to Ride” is pitch-perfect, with a rolling banjo and just the right wild abandon in the vocals, similar to the way Dark Hollow Bottling Company (RIP) nailed their “Kicking My Dog Around” with Jim White on the lead vocals. And the Dixie-flavored “Just Because” is the kind of thing Hot Club of Cowtown does so well, bringing an old line like “just because you think you’re so pretty/ Just because you think you’re so hot” right back to the present day.
This is the kind of debut record where can say things will only get better from here without that being an insult.