I get the feeling the Gibson Brothers had a lot of fun making their latest album, Mockingbird, which was released in November 2018 by Easy Eye Sound. This record wasn’t conceived as a Bluegrass album, and, sure enough, it isn’t one.
That said, Mockingbird is a notable collection of remarkably good music.
Eric and Leigh Gibson have said that the songs on this release come from the sounds they used to hear as kids on the radios in their dad’s truck and their mom’s station wagon. Easy Eye Sound accurately describes this as “a mix of country, soul and seventies rock.”
The CD’s strong point is the singing, of course, which is beautiful throughout. If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, then odds are you have heard most or all of the brothers’ Bluegrass recordings, and you know that whatever they release will have fine lead vocals and exquisite harmony, in the familiar Gibson timbre. Yes, their band has always featured great musicianship and their live performances can be captivating, but I think it’s really the blood harmony that catches and holds the listener’s attention.
Along with the thoughtful songwriting, of course, and there’s a good deal of that here, too. Ten of the eleven songs on this release were written or co-written by the brothers, and there’s some very interesting material.
But instead of predominant banjo and mandolin, you get to hear them with lots of piano, organ, pedal steel, and electric guitar, now and then with a taste of tremolo, wah wah or heavy reverb.
At first it was an odd experience hearing the familiar Gibson Brothers’ sound so far out of its usual context. But the producers, Dan Auerbach and Fergie Ferguson, have done a great job of weaving classic licks into the fills and breaks—weeping steel, say, or slinky smooth soul guitar—and the instrumentation nicely complements the lyrics and the voices in every song.
The cuts that combine the best writing, vocals and production are “Travelin’ Day,” an a original song about facing death with dignity and acceptance; “Everybody Hurts,” the CD’s only cover; and “Not Gonna Be Tonight,” an original that portrays the hopelessness of substance abuse.
“Travelin’ Day” is a straight-ahead country song that was co-written with Ferguson, and it was inspired by his and the brothers’ experiences in losing close family members in recent years. The song features some nice Louvin-like harmony, a tasteful arrangement with simple but moving moments of piano, steel and fiddle, and lyrics that treat dying as the natural, inevitable, final step of living.
The Gibson Brothers have a comfortable Southern-soul, slow-dance take on the R.E.M. classic “Everybody Hurts.” The title has always seemed a bit misleading: the song is really not so much about pain as endurance. The lyrics say that we all have some difficulty now and then, but if you hang in there you can get through it, so don’t give up. The original R.E.M. recording has a dramatic arrangement that highlights the pain, overshadowing the song’s essential message of hope. Small wonder that a survey in the United Kingdom once rated this the most depressing song of all time. But on Mockingbird, the song loses its existential angst and becomes more personal, almost as if the singer is saying, “Yeah, I know it’s tough, but hang on, Baby.”
“Not Gonna Be Tonight,” the last song on the album, paints a dismal portrait of abuse and regret. It’s the lament of someone who has hit bottom and wants to take a step toward recovery, but is unable to do anything about it. It includes some of the strongest lyrics on the CD: “Someday I’ll change my ways, walk out of this haze into the light. . . . To those that I’ve let down, who pray that I’ll turn this ship around, wouldn’t that be nice—but it’s not gonna be tonight.” It’s a bleak outlook, but all the more powerful for being sadly realistic.
Okay, you’re thinking, if the best three songs here are about death, addiction and hope in the face of universal suffering, where’s the fun?
Well, most of the other songs are about pleasant, even happy, subjects.
“Special One” is a sweet love song with hints of Everly Brothers harmony and early-60s pop chord changes, and its message is cleverly accented with a couple of very well-placed tremolo notes.
“Cool Drink of Water” could have been an AM country radio hit in the mid-80s. “Lay Your Body Down” has a rocking, moving-on-down-the-highway beat and some flashy electric guitar leads. Spoiler alert: The title doesn’t refer to burial of a lost loved one.
There’s a good bit of variety in this CD, and I think the real enjoyment for the Gibson Brothers must have been in spending a couple of intense weeks in Nashville working in different genres, collaborating with accomplished producers and session musicians, and producing a quite listenable CD.
Even die-hard Bluegrass fans without much interest in other types of music should appreciate what the Gibson Brothers have accomplished with Mockingbird.