There are quite a few similarities between Balsam Range and Blue Highway, this is in terms of the way they approach music, the kinds of songs they present, and their ability as musicians. And there’s this too: they always seem to think that they need to start each album with a barnburner of one sort or another. An “up” tune. In a statistically significant number, the second track is also the title track, as on Lonesome Pine, Through the Window of a Train, Sounds of Home — it’s as if the first track is the sound check before the concert. More correctly, it’s an instinct that carries over from the stage, in that bands want to get the audience on side as quickly as possible, and a rousing number is the way to do that. But, an album isn’t a concert, and programming an album is—or should be—different that programming a set of music for a live show.
In any case, as with those Blue Highway releases, Balsam Range albums always seem to begin properly with the second track. On Last Train to Kitty Hawk it was the gorgeous “Place No Wreath” after the jangling of “Julie’s Train.” On their latest, Five, that second track is the gorgeous “Chasing Someone Else’s Dreams.” To get there we have to wait through “Moon Over Memphis”—it’s a very energetic song, but it feels distant. The lyric is “There’s a moon over Memphis, looking down on what I’ve done … shining through the barrel of a gun.” Hmmm. Okay. Then we get the first few bars of “Chasing,” which includes a guitar run, and a guitar sound, that is to die for. From that moment it’s like you’ve found the room you really want to be in, it’s when you realize that you really are at the right party.
“Chasing Someone Else’s Dreams”
The rest of the album continues that way. Again, Balsam Range has a lot in common with Blue Highway, including their ability to interpret a range of material, and to apply themselves entirely to the point of the song. Every member has a great voice, and the a cappella “Stacking up the Rocks” is proof. Falsetto can be a bad idea, but Buddy Melton uses it brilliantly on “Everything that Glitters.” I love it.
There’s variety in here, too, and it’s welcome. I’m not at all against those “up” songs. “Monday Blues” is a delight, and cleanses our palette, in a sense, for “Songs I’ve Sung,” and “Too High a Price to Pay.” There’s also a song in here, “Matthew,” that is hard not to set on repeat and just let it run.
Truly, no matter what we say about an album, the proof is whether we choose to put it on, to choose it for the ride to pick up the kids from school, or to listen to on the long drive north to the cottage (I don’t have a cottage, but you might, and this would be a great one to take along). Even more telling is if you find yourself putting it on again and again. And you find yourself singing along even before you know what the lyrics are. Truly, this album has been living in my car for the last two weeks and it still has a lot to offer. Except that first track. I don’t think I’ve listened to it more than perhaps three times, as I’m just too excited to get to the second track, which leads on to all the other great stuff in here. For sure, Five is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. Not because it pushes any boundaries, or shocks, or takes anything to a new level, but just because it’s so enjoyable. And, frankly, what more could you want?
Gayle: This is the best, and most perceptive, review I’ve read in a long time. Your comment (right up front of course) about the habit of opening with an “up” tune.