Bourdon and Kirton return with amazingly good Tab Spencer EP
Man, do I love Monday nights. It’s crunch time for slack-ass Pulse writers everywhere (looking at you, Teach) and while our editor is asking himself for the thousandth time what could justify all the ulcers and hair-loss, we tap away in the darkened corners of wherever it is we work, trying to justify being kept on the payroll for another week.
Most often the material I have to work with is pretty good, and that makes the job fun and interesting. Rarely (but not as rare as I’d like) the material is…less robust and that makes for a long, miserable night. Then there are nights like tonight when the artist is someone I’ve covered before (and can therefore dispense with mundane details) and the material is exceptional. I love nights like tonight, and tonight the subject is Tab Spencer.
It’s been two years since I first wrote about the duo of Garrett Bourdon and Jack Kirton. I was impressed then; I’m blown away now. The eponymous new EP is just five tunes, but each one is a gem and taken as a whole, it is some of the most quintessential roots rock I have ever heard.
Track one, “The Wind Does Blow,” features a prominent mandolin, gorgeous in tone and execution. At the same time, somewhere over the song’s left shoulder is an omnipresent lead guitar and the counterpoint is achingly sweet. Layers of sound give the song genuine depth without ever become murky, muddy or overcrowded and through it all, Bourdon’s voice (with Kirton backing) is the key that holds it all together, the narrator that walks us through from one end of the song to the other. I’m telling you, and not for the last time, these guys have made something very special here.
“All In” is the second song of the disc and opens with the dulcet tones of Kirton’s pedal steel. For just a moment it seems like it might be a lazy, summer afternoon kind of tune until the drums kick in with the steady chug of a steam locomotive sailing down the tracks (the harmonica lends itself to that particular imagery) and the beautifully flat-picked guitar completes the sense of motion. Bourdon’s vocals soar along with the song, periodically dropping down in to lustier, guttural territory. It’s a joyful little tune that still somehow manages to convey a sense of wistfulness and longing.
“What I’m Told” has got to have some Western in its DNA (Western, NOT Country Western.) Was it not for the chant-like cadence of the verse it could damn near be a cowboy tune. Haunting and full of space, it illustrates the maturity of Bourdon and Kirton. Where all too many musicians tend to err on the side of “too much,” this song demonstrates the considerable power of restraint.
“Mary Ellen” is the song that takes every gentle, beautiful element of the other songs and adds a cello for good measure. The song is heartbreakingly gorgeous and while it isn’t particularly sad, it’s hard not to become a little misty-eyed during the extended instrumental portions. For all their prodigious writing skills (they are excellent lyricists) this song says as much, or more, without the words as with.
“Where Were You” is the final entry on the EP and the jaunty tune is a fitting capstone to the project. Where “Mary Ellen” left me lost in a forest of beautiful sounds, “Where Were You” is like a gentle nudge back to reality, as if to say, “Hey man, put your shoes back on. We’ve got a little more to say and then it’s time to move on.”
Of course all I’m describing here is the feel of the song and its placement in the playlist. As a standalone entry the tune once again shows the ability of the band to combine disparate elements into something new and wonderful. The song sounds just as happy as all get out but the point of it is something else altogether:
“You were born to these hills with the wind at your back, where there once was a smile, now a nervous laugh…”
It appears I am well over my word-limit for this feature, but that happens with music of this caliber (when not torturing my editor with extended deadlines, I confusticate him with word overages and space constraints.)
Simply put, Tab Spencer was excellent two years ago, but their latest entry surpasses that work in every way. A tip of the hat to the friends and contributors who lent their talents to this most impressive collection of songs: Joey Berkley on drums, Dennis Hubbard on bass, Spaz Macisco on synth, and the lovely Emily Scott Robinson on background vocals and cello.
The EP is called Tab Spencer and as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best releases of the year.