Forlorn Strangers hit home with an amazing debut album
Regular readers of this column know that there are certain words I don’t like to use, typically because I say so right before I use them. Today’s word is “Americana” and I like to avoid that word because it has been overused and misused to the point that it’s hard to know what it means anymore.
Fortunately, there are bands like the Nashville based quintet Forlorn Strangers who can set the record straight. Their sound is a fluid blend of folk, mountain music, “old time,” country, early rock and even flavors of Dixieland jazz. In short, it is American music (do you like American music? I like American music) and their self-titled debut album is the epitome of Americana. They’re bringing it to Clyde’s on Main on Friday, August 19th.
A point in the band’s bio made me smile in particular: “In May 2015, the Forlorn Strangers became full time musicians…” When I was a much younger fellow, being able to call yourself a “full time musician” was a badge of honor we all strived for and few attained. I should say, “full time working musician.” It wasn’t enough to merely own a guitar while otherwise jobless.
I very proudly made a go of it myself once, for about six months, until my unfortunate addictions to food and shelter forced me in another direction. It’s a very hard row to hoe, but Forlorn Strangers jumped in with both feet and by the end of last year the band had logged over 20,000 miles on the road. That’s the sort of transformative experience that only the strongest survive and the bands that do always emerge stronger, leaner and well-polished.
Abigail Dempsey plays fiddle and shares percussion with her sister Heather Leigh Lusk who also plays mandolin and upright bass. Chris Banke plays mandolin and guitar. Benjamin Lusk plays banjo and guitar and Jesse Thompson rounds out the group with upright bass, guitar and dobro. All five members sing and, unusual in a group this size, all five are gifted songwriters contributing to the band’s output.
Five songwriters in one band, working together under the grueling conditions of the road suggests that the bonds these folks share are deeper than most; even the word “family” doesn’t seem strong enough.
The band has achieved some musical alchemy with this first album in that its ten tracks collectively form a beautifully cohesive work, yet each track is its own unique gem. That must seem like a no-brainer, but even the best bands occasionally release an album that has some throwaway tracks; a couple of “weird” ones that don’t really suit the album or a couple that just sound too much alike.
Bear in mind, this is a debut album; a little looseness or a little fluff would be forgivable, but that’s just not the case. Every tune is the best tune on the record.
“Bottom of the Barrel” is the opening track and can be viewed online in a number of live recordings, an official video and even an NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” version. Go find it. Watch it. I cannot imagine a better introduction to the group than this singular song.
“Sugarcane” is a bluesy, “swamp rock” work song in the finest folk tradition. “What I Don’t Remember” is Appalachian music with a contemporary makeover (it’s gorgeous, too.) “The Light” is…angelic, the vocals simply enfold you in the sweetest, most comforting way.
There’s a point to be made there. Instrumentally, the entire band is at the top of its game. Their arrangements are perfection. The lyrics are poetry. It is the vocals, however, that raise this band high above the crowd. The vocals are simply magical. The voices themselves are pure and simple but the harmonies are transcendent. Frankly, the album and the band are breathtaking and the Forlorn Strangers are the worthy 21st century successors to the likes of Seeger, Guthrie and the Carter Family.
Sample their music online first and I am certain you will agree that on Friday, August 19th Clyde’s on Main is where you will want to be.