I had a busy week and was unable to squeeze in a review. Fortunately, I had an album that just got better and better on each listen.
Disc 1132 is… Sleep Beneath the Willow
Artist: Daniel Romano
Year of Release: 2011
What’s up with the Cover? Hunters often take a traditional photo with the harvested animal in front, and the hunter and the gun that killed it laid across the flank in the foreground. This could be the hipster musician equivalent. Instead of an elk, you have a couch and instead of posing behind it, the hipster just lays down. Because…hipsters. Up front is Romano’s weapon – the guitar.
Also, the couch tends to not have any bullet holes in it, although this is optional.
How I Came To Know It: My coworker Sam put me on to Daniel Romano and told me this was the best album to start with.
How It Stacks Up: I have four Daniel Roman albums. I used to have five, but I got rid of “Modern Pressure” after it failed to impress. Regardless, it turns out Sam was right; “Sleep Beneath the Willow” is the best of the bunch.
Ratings: 5 stars
“Sleep Beneath the Willow” is a faithful and heartfelt re-imagining of old school country music, delivered with reverence for the original masters and just the right amount of innovation.
Chief among the influences are the Byrds and Gram Parsons. Romano’s voice sounds like a cross between Gram and Roger McGuinn; light and airy and full of world-weariness. Romano doesn’t have a massive range or powerhouse vocals but like Parsons, he sings with conviction and a tone that grows on you with repeat listens.
By saying this, do I mean to deliver the back-handed complement “it grows on you”? Yeah, a little, but it grows on you quickly and is well worth the time invested.
When I first heard this record I played it in the background at work and I thought it was…just OK. Once I took the time to give it my full attention, it revealed its true beauty. Part of that is the sneakily compelling vocal style, but more than anything it is the songwriting.
Romano is a master of melody and song structure, and a born storyteller. Never straying far from traditional chord progressions of his heroes, he still manages to make songs that are both fresh and timeless.
“Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)” opens the album, with a light female chorus of ‘la la la las’ that reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love”, and for the first few bars you think that’s where Romano is going. Instead he infuses an old school country moseying beat and a traditional tale of lost love and revenge. It isn’t just the fusion of multiple styles that makes the song impressive it is how seamless Romano manages it.
On “There Are Lines In My Face” Romano opens with a “just because…” that made me instantly think of Elvis Presley’s “She Thinks I Still Care” but then quickly transitions the song in a whole other direction musically. However, that slight invocation drew my mind to comparisons throughout. On “She Thinks I Still Care” a spurned lover puts on a brave face, pretending he is over it. On “There Are Lines In My Face” the spurned lover says “just because I look like I’m doing OK, doesn’t mean that I am.” Romano’s vocals let him down slightly in the lower end of the register in this song, but he still delivers a dark and ominous dirge.
The record also shows humour, with “Helen’s Restaurant” delivering punchlines through a series of incomplete rhymes – each advancing the story:
“A man came into our town
Swinging his partner around
He grabbed his young maid by the wrist
And bent down to give her a…
Paper to sign right away
Saying they're parting their ways
She grabbed her man by his side and stared right deep in his…
Wallet to get her fair share.”
Who knew divorce could be so much fun.
The best song on the record is “Louise” a stripped down sea chantey about a lost love, propped up by the reverberation of organ and a vocal arrangement that starts with just Romano, and swells with a chorus of background singers, even as your heart swells at the loss of the narrator:
“Echoes off the shore of her abandoned dreams
Deep beneath the foaming floor; the memory of Louise.
She left her ghost behind to rattle in my sheets
To wake me from the restless sleep; the memory of Louise
In a sailing boat I see her, so vivid I could scream
There's a storm on the horizon and she's far away at sea
And in the dream I try to tell her as she falls down at her knees
Please do not forget me, my loving wife Louise”
The interplay of repeating “L” and “W” sounds in “my loving wife Louise” is pure magic, and sung just as the melody drops down with regret and loss.
Then, right when you think your heart is going to burst, a violin solo comes in and fills you with a melancholy calm – still sad, but a different kind of sad. The respite is temporary, as Romano returns after a couple of bars and climbs you back up onto the cliffs of heartache. I’m a sucker for a sea chantey to begin with, and this is a great one.
I had originally intended to rate this record just a little south of perfect based on some weakness in Romano’s vocals and the fact that the music sounds a lot like artists from the early and mid-seventies. However, the more I listened the more I realized two things. First, I don’t want to hear these songs sung by anyone else and second, these songs are the equal of those early masters and deserve to be acknowledged as such. Five stars.
Best tracks: All of them, but here’s a bunch of my favourites: Time Forgot (to Change My Heart), Hard On You, Louise, Helen’s Restaurant, Paul and Jon, There Are Lines in My Face, Never a Forced Smile, Nothing. There’s also 3 more that are good.