calicoDrifters – Turning Home
(2009 Engine-Engine Productions)
After three albums, the music of calicoDrifters hasn’t strayed from their signature sound; melancholy, minimalist folk with touches of jazz and blues. The music is still the creation of Thomas Burns and is performed by himself along with vocalist Sue Prodell. On rare occasion they’ll add drums played by Mark Goad. The formula is a winning one as it suits the forlorn nature of the songs.
Far too little attention gets paid to the lyrical aspects of music, especially the poetic in contrast to the outrageous. For calicoDrifters, however, it’s all about the emotion, the feel and the words. This collection seems to have a loose theme about it – going somewhere. Whether it’s the indecision portrayed in “Leading Me Home,” the sadly gorgeous opener that showcases Prodell’s aching, self-harmonized vocals; the mischievous user running out in “My Heart’s in Pieces;” or even the reflections on a wedding day in “Only One.” There is an awful lot of uncertainty in the songs, some regret and, in the album closer “Between Us Now,” some bitterness. But the sorrow hits home the hardest in the beautifully homesick “Turning Home,” sung by Burns with harmonies by Prodell. Here the finger-picked guitars resonate sweetly with the poetry.
It’s interesting the way Burns is able to write without gender; you never know if it’s coming from the male or female perspective. The two sound great when singing together, though it’s Prodell doing the harmonizing, either with herself or with Burns when he’s taking the lead, but not the other way around.
The band is not without some humor however, as is the case in “I’ve Got a Man,” the one instance in which gender does come into play. “We met one day outside his trailer / And he asked my name, I had to lie / Then he told me he was Norman Mailer / But his prose style didn’t match that guy” is one of the best stanzas on the album although, to be fair, the album is full of great lyrics. It’s ultimately a tale of resignation, however as she sings, “I don’t fear the night or shrink from its shadow / And I don’t mind a little rain.”
“Right Past the End” is another highlight, the dissonance underscoring the finalization of love with another great line: “My heart was like a shipwreck / And yours the coast of Maine.” Sad and haunting, Burns underscores the lonesome guitar with restrained bits of piano, accentuating the inventive chord progression.
There are jazzy moments as well, the lounge-y “Alone and Still in Love” and the more dissonant “My Heart’s in Pieces.” In this way they are able to demonstrate how similar lyrical lines can take on a completely different ambiance depending on the style in which they are presented.
“Thirteen Crosses” is a storytelling folk song that chronicles the Mann Gulch Tragedy of 1949, in which thirteen Forest Service firefighters died in a Montana blaze, an event that changed the way forest fires are fought. Although it’s a departure from the relationships expressed throughout the rest of Turning Home, it’s just as desperate and tragic. Nowhere does Burns indicate the historical nature of the subject matter, but one who listens closely will want to know more. This is perhaps the ultimate achievement for a writer; to know that his words are being heard and do indeed elicit a response, intellectual or emotional.