LAST TRAIN HOME
(Blue Buffalo Records)
When Last Train Home's fourth full length CD "Bound Away" came out in 2005, the band had grown from nine to ten members. Doug Derryberry, also their long-time producer and engineer, had left. Jared Bartlett (who kept all the sound waves in place and played guitar) and Chris Watling (tenor saxophone) joined. Special guests were among others Australian guitar ace Jeff Lang and Alice Despard, introduced as "D.C.'s indie rock queen, with a harmony voice that is indescribably beautiful".
The info sheet states: "Bound Away" is easily Last Train Home's most mature recording. It features the band's alt.country sound, but also shows more varied influences at work. The record's emotional centerpiece, "Hendersonville", is Eric Brace's stunning tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, one that avoids the potential pitfalls of "tribute" songs, and stands alone as a fully realized work. There's a deep sense of places in that song, as there is across the album's twelve cuts. From the howling dogs of East Nashville in "Dogs On The East Side", to the farm and fields of "They Dance Real Close There", to the Arkansas train in "Marlene", to the Western landscapes of the closing instrumental "Bound Away", all the songs seem to carry a little bit of dirt. You can smell the earth. These songs are organic creations that the musicians in Last Train Home have brought to life through the alchemy of their performances.
Well-respected artists like the music of Last Train Home a lot. Sid Griffin says: "Of all the bands in the ever growing wave of alt-country acts, the most original is also the best, Washington DC's Last Train Home. Their records sound like no one else's and their inventive instrumental line-up mark them as both creative and unique. With a live show to match clearly this is one musical conglomeration to pick to click in 2005." And Don Dixon: "I remember the first time I heard Eric sing. It was at the old 9:30 Club in DC & I said to the girl beside me, "I thought he was a journalist. He's no journalist, he's good!" The band was too & they tore the place apart that night. Now I like to listen to Last Train Home when I'm heading down the highway, wishing that I could go where they are." Compliments from Lloyd Maines: "When I first heard the band Last Train Home on a radio station here in South Texas, it sounded like a record that should have already been a hit. I thought, "How did I miss this one?" I got to hear the band live and they sounded as good as their record. No smoke and mirrors with these guys." And last but not least Marty Stuart: "Miles Davis and Bill Monroe had a baby - they called it Last Train Home. This band is no less than a Mystery Train, hauling a ghost load of American Music. They must be on a mission because these men play like they mean business. I dig them."
Well, I guess I was the first one to write about this band in The Netherlands. Probably. That was when "Time And Water" had its European release. And here I have that familiar digipack in my hands: "Bound Away", with a cover picture of the escalator in the Metro Station of Rosslyn, Virginia. The newest one, "Last Good Kiss" is already out, but I really NEEDED to pull this one close again. That's exactly what the music does, right from the start: it pulls you in and it pulls you close, inevitably. "Marlene", Eric Brace's vocal over Dave Van Allen's pretty pedal steel guitar solo. "Before you get on that fast moving train to Palestine (Arkansas)..." Wow, I'm swooning again. "Dogs On The East Side" (a songtitle only a journalist can make up!): trumpet on the intro, with the kickdrum, slow with a smouldering jazzy touch. During the instrumental break pedal steel and organ winding around each other in a daring combination! "Hendersonville" is a modest tribute, full of respect and understanding. From the thin mountain air atmosphere - building up, with Pete Finney on pedal steel guitar this time (Dave lives up North in the Philadelphia area, he can't always be there) and great harmonies by Alice Despard, her vocal blends perfectly with Eric's.
One of the best Dylan covers ever, "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You", again that pedal steel / organ intertwining. Enthusiastic, energetic, excellent!! "Rye Whiskey", a slow, somewhat bluesy traditional, with a vibraphone as the surprise guest instrument, played by Chuck Redd. Jeff Lang takes care of the resophonic guitar solo while Scott McKnight picked up the baritone guitar. We hear Alice again, while Eric carefully tries out his falsetto voice. The Paul Kelly cover "To Her Door", a sad song with a happy ending: "Riding through the streets/ In a Silvertop taxi to her door..." Rhythmic sound. The magnificent Martin Lynds on drums! Harmony: Alice! Organ: guest musician Jon Carroll! Another cover, long story ballad "They Dance Real Close There" being not a second too long and unfolding with a wide variety of instruments taking turns in the spotlight, from banjo touches to tenor saxophone.
"Gravedigger's Blues", powerful electric blues indeed. Jeff Lang's resophonic guitar parts are VERY impressive!! But what a weird ending... Two catchy countryrock songs are next. "Flipping Quarters" featuring two acoustic guitars (Eric Brace and Jared Bartlett), one electric, that's Australian guitar tiger Jeff Lang playing memorable smoking solos! From a payphone still accepting quarters, we go to cellphones and E-mail in the next song, "Matchbook Message". Inspired by the incredible Amy Rigby, I'm a long-time fan too, Eric! We hear lapsteel now and Ericson Holt -an artist in his own right- is very good playing the organ. The strong tracks keep coming, absolutely no weaker material included here. "Train Of Love": That intro! Definitely a tribute to the trainsongs Johnny Cash recorded! This must be an express train that truly deserves the name "flyer"... Martin is working overtime behind his drumkit, Dave on pedal steel, Kevin playing the trumpet and Chris the saxophone, what an instrumentation! The last track -giving the album its title- is an instrumental. A perfect example why not every song needs words to tell a story. We listen to Jeff Lang once more, ominously in the background at first -while Eric's acoustic guitar stays sweet- then coming closer...
Artists usually love their newest "baby" the most, so I don't really like what I'm doing here: saying that I actually love an earlier album a little more than the latest one. Let me put it this way: please, make sure you acquire all these three Last Train Home CD's -easily available here in Europe too-: "Time And Water", "Bound Away" and "Last Good Kiss". Hey, cool idea: you can pick your own favorite and tell me!
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, August 2007.---
Eric's Thoughts, on the songs of "Bound Away":
MARLENE (written by Kevin Johnson)
I played in Kevin Johnson's band, the Linemen, several years back, as did fellow LTH-er Bill Williams. We used to play this one, and we recorded it on KJ's superb "Memphis For Breakfast" release. In addition, Alan, Dave, Alice and I used to play in a very loopy, eclectic C.C. band called the Beggars, and we used to play this one too. The song is so good, we just can't let it be. Kevin's from Arkansas, and the Palestine in the song is a small railroad town in his home state, not a reference to that somewhat better known Palestine in the news so much these days.
DOGS ON THE EAST SIDE
In East Nashville, you'll see dogs roaming around freely, solo and in packs, and you can definitely hear them at night, often near a particular railroad track that runs through the neighborhood near our favorite restaurant there, the Family Wash. Those tracks have gotten under my skin. This started out as just a couple of chords, but it finally took shape in Martin's East Nashville garage. Puck and Brandi barking at the end live in Scott's Alexandria, VA, neighborhood, however.
The week after Johnny Cash died, I drove up to Hendersonville, TN. I went to the municipal cemetery and asked where Johnny and June were buried. The man pointed up a low rise. "They're right up there, beside that tree." There was no gravestone yet over Johnny, just freshly turned dirt. The stone beside him was for June Carter Cash. There was no one else around. I stood there and thought about him, and them, for a while. About two weeks later, driving up I-81 through Virginia, this song just fell out of me. In the van, at 80 miles an hour, dodging the trucks, I scrambled to find pen and paper, taking down the lyrics and desperately humming the melody over and over. As soon as I got up to Washington, I grabbed a guitar and made sure it all held together. Back in Nashville, Martin and John came up with half-time groove, and we had ourselves a song.
TONIGHT I'LL BE STAYING HERE WITH YOU (written by Bob Dylan)
It goes without saying that "Nashville Skyline" is one of our favorite Dylan records. I've always wanted to record this one. Voila.
RYE WHISKEY (traditional)
There are so many versions of this old, old song, it's hard to say when it really seeped into my consciousness. The version I actually learned it from was Jesse Colin Young's on his "Soul Of A City Boy" album. I altered the rhythm and the chord progression. Jeff Lang's slide guitar playing is haunting, and Washington jazz vibes genius Chuck Redd (Charlie Byrd's longtime drummer) lays down some subtle lines.
TO HER DOOR (written by Paul Kelly)
Alan and I opened for Paul Kelly at the Birchmere (Alexandria, VA) a decade ago, and LTH went to see him perform in Melbourne during our Australian tour in November 2001. He's a hero. A role model. An inspiration. He does more different styles really well than almost anyone out there. This song was one of the biggest hits in Australia. We love it and thought we'd give it a shot.
THEY DANCED REAL CLOSE THERE (written by Karl Straub)
We've performed and recorded several Karl Straub songs over the years. He's one of the greatest songwriters of our time, but he keeps a low profile in D.C. Martin and Jim both played in his band the Graverobbers. This is one the 'Robbers rarely played, but which Karl does now when he performs live. An amazing tune in 6/8 time, it's a cautionary tale of "bright lights, big city", but with indecipherably ominous -and perhaps even comic- undertones.
Washington D.C.'s finest acoustic bluesman was the late John Jackson, who was also a longtime gravedigger. I'd long thought of trying to write a song from his perspective on the world. Hanging around the incredible Jeff Lang inspired me to write something for him to go nuts on. Those two things come together here, the first thing I ever wrote on electric guitar. I wrote it soon after we played some gigs with our pals the Tarbox Ramblers and I'm reasonably sure Michael Tarbox was an inspiration on this one as well.
With its references to payphones that only cost a quarter, this song is clearly an older tune. We've been kicking it around awhile, and finally decided to record it with Jeff Lang on electric guitar, when he came through DC.
One time I wandered into IOTA (our home club, in Arlington, VA) when our pal Amy Rigby was performing. I couldn't stay till the end so I scribbled a note saying "howdy" on a matchbook and asked the bartender to hand it to her after her set. I later sent her an E-mail and said "Did you get my matchbook message?" She wrote back and said, "That line sounds like a song that needs be written." This short tune is what I worked up.
TRAIN OF LOVE
This slightly off-kilter rave-up shares its title with a Johnny Cash tune. I hope he doesn't mind. Note Dave channeling the Buckaroo's steel player Tom Brumley (specially some riffs Tom played on a Rick Nelson session). Note Kevin's horn chart, channeling Dave's part (and something much farther out in space). Note insane musical snake, swallowing its tail. Regarding the weight of the train, I apologize to all railroad people for getting it very wrong. During my research well after the song was written and recorded, I found out that a typical steam locomotive weighs nearly 200 tons. Perhaps I'll change the lyrics when LTH performs this one live, but "200" has more syllables than "20".....
A melody in open tuning (E, A, B, E, B, E for those of you keeping track) that has been in my head a while. I had some lyrics for it, right at the end ("Away, away, I'm bound away") but the recording session of me, Martin, Jim and Jeff Lang was such an incredible live experience, we decided to leave it as is: all instrumental. Hopefully some of the spine-tingling mystery that we felt while playing it together has been captured on this recording. A few years ago, I spent several months listening to nothing but "Good Dog, Happy Man", the CD by genius guitarist Bill Frisell. About the same time, I was reading A.B. Guthrie's brilliant novels of the early American West, "The Big Sky" and "The Way West". Somehow, both Frisell and Guthrie led me to "Bound Away".