Somewhere between a jam band and a bluegrass ensemble lies the band Railroad Earth. They’re typically described as an “Americana” band, with bluegrass, folk, rock ‘n roll, and jazz influences. They have all the acoustic pieces of a bluegrass band (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, banjo), but they are one of the few bluegrass bands that use amps and have a drummer. These are both positives if you ask me. They’ve been one of my favourite bands in the last several years, consistently solid with their studio releases and positively electric during their live performances. Plus, many of them hail from the great state of New Jersey. Their most recent release (June 10), Amen Corner, was recorded in a 300-year-old farmhouse in the boonies of New Jersey (yes, they have farms in the Dirty Jerz), and is possibly their best effort yet beginning to end.
Amen Corner is one of those albums that takes a while to percolate. On first listen, nothing really stood out other than the fast-paced “Crossing the Gap,” which not only is solid musically, but the lyrics hit home as well (a song about coming home from a long journey and looking across the Gap to Jersey). But after a few listens, I grew to love this album and haven’t taken it out of rotation for several reasons.
First, it seems that this album is more mandolin-driven, which is a huge positive. Mandolin player John Skehan has always been very talented, but his picking shines through in this album more so than any previous album (previous albums were more fiddle-driven). I love me some fiddle, and RRE’s Tim Carbone is one of the best, but it’s good to break it up once in a while. Skehan especially shines on the sole instrumental track on Amen Corner: “Lonecroft Ramble.”
Second, lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer’s songwriting is as good as ever. He’s a master at crafting catchy, upbeat songs with positive messages. His opening lyrics on the album’s first track “Been Down This Road” set the welcoming tone for the rest of the album: “Come around Amen Corner and there she’s standing in the door/Staring in the eyes of my poor soul.” “Right in Tune,” Little Bit O’ Me,”and “Lovin’ You” are also standouts lyrically.
Third, Railroad Earth seems to incorporate much of their older roots on more traditional bluegrass anthems “Waggin’ the Dog,” “Bringin’ My Baby Back Home,” and “Crossing the Gap” (I just noticed that four of the songs include words with a dropped “g”). But RRE also experiments with new avenues, including the double saxophone on “Hard Livin.'” “The Forecast” has potential to be an epic live song, with mellow harmonies yet a driving rhythm that lends itself to a marathon jam session.
Finally, the musical similarities between Sheaffer and the late Jerry Garcia are much more pronounced on this album, especially on two of the last three tracks: “All Alone” and “You Never Know.” On “All Alone” Sheaffer’s ethereal voice hearkens back to some of Garcia’s slower ballads, and even the guitar effects are eerily similar to those on the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station album. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but it definitely begs the comparison.
This album isn’t flawless, however, with some of the weak spots being the repetitive nature of “Bringin’ My Baby Back Home” and “Waggin’ the Dog.” Also, while the album as a whole is quite solid (perhaps more so than any of their previous albums), there is no standout “goosebumps” song like on previous albums (i.e. crowd favourite “Long Way to Go”).
I’m thoroughly enjoying Amen Corner so far, and am looking forward to seeing Railroad Earth live in the future. They’ve shown that they have grown and matured musically, and this album is one of their best yet, and arguably one of the year’s best album releases to date. You can stream it from the Amen Corner website or just buy it. I recommend it for seasoned bluegrass fans as well as music fans unfamiliar with the genre. It’s a widely accessible album while still being complex and beautiful.